Recent Online Offerings Expand Higher Education Options

New online education initiatives by Waitrose as well as two well-regarded U.S. business schools expand choices for students pursuing higher education.

The recent proliferation of online programs offering college and even post-secondary degrees means two things: more programs are now competing for a relatively small pool of highly qualified students, and wider pool of less-qualified and non-traditional students now have access to low-cost or even free college-level curriculum.

Before online-only school gained a serious foothold, high barrier to entry meant that from year to year, the same traditional business schools competed for high-GPA, high-GMAT-scoring college graduates who were looking to get their Masters of Business Administration. This year, however, a highly regarded Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina launched an online-only program called MBA@UNC. The price of tuition for the program is $89,000.

At the top end of the market, quality not cost is the key concept, and Kenan-Flagler requires all students to meet the same entry criteria as for its full-time MBA, which includes sitting the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admission Test.

Kelley Direct, the online arm of the Kelley School of Business at the University of Indiana, also requires its participants to sit the GMAT.

Munirpallam Venkataramanan, associate dean for academic programmes at Kelley, says this reassures applicants that participants on similar programmes will be of a similar quality. “We signal to our students that they are going through a rigorous academic experience, ” he says.

The launch of the University of Indiana and University of North Carolina programs is a strong indicator that students now see online-only education as more legitimate, academically rigorous, and sufficiently prestigious to justify a hefty price tag.

Another recent entrant into the field of online education is a UK supermarket chain Waitrose, which has partnered with a venerable UK provider of distance learning, Open University, and Ashbridge Business School, to offer its employees free access to courses in business administration. The program, called PartnerLearn (Waitrose employees are known as “partners”)

…is one example of how the internet can democratise learning, bringing business school programmes, once the prerogative of company executives and aspiring investment bankers, to everyone working in a business.

As the number of online-only degree programs grows, and as more students take advantage of those programs to further their education, they can be reassured by the fact that potential employers are looking at online-only degrees with a kindly eye. A survey conducted by Zogby as early as 2010, when online-only offerings weren’t nearly as plentiful, found that 61% of CEOs and business owners were familiar with with such programs.

Not only are they familiar with them, but 83 percent of executives in the survey say that an online degree is as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. Employers said such factors as the accreditation of the college or university, the quality of its graduates and the name of the institution awarding the degree were among other things they considered to make an online degree more credible.

It’s clear, that going forward, online education will continue to spread. From online-only degree programs, to individual courses for personal enrichment or job training, to the hybrid of the two like the initiatives recently launched by Stanford and MIT, the potential of this new approach to higher education has barely been tapped.

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