As program director for an online Executive MBA program, I speak to many prospective students and field numerous questions about the program. Most of the inquiries have to do with the operations or outcomes of the program: the time commitment each week, the technology used for delivery, the cohort model, or ROI for the program, to name a few.
I am surprised, however, by the questions that often don’t get asked: “Will I think differently as a result of this program?” “Will my colleagues view me differently?” “Will I form meaningful relationships with my cohort or instructors?” “Will I have the confidence to lead a major project when I’m done with the program?” I’ve concluded that, for many applicants, pursuing an MBA degree is perceived as a relatively simple exchange: take these courses; receive your degree.
Though it may be incomplete, that perception is not entirely incorrect. There are hundreds of MBA programs in the U.S. alone—both on-campus and online. At the very least, most deliver a basic core curriculum of management, finance, accounting and marketing courses in which students learn to read an income statement, define a value proposition, calculate a net present value, and more. A sizeable majority of MBA programs are further differentiated by breadth and depth of offering, or by specialty programs or concentrations. The basic offering, albeit with some variations, remains essentially the same: a set of tools for the manager’s tool belt. The result is a hyper-competitive MBA market with many programs promoting largely undifferentiated offerings amidst fierce rivalry.
In this type of market, where potential students find it difficult to perceive real differences among programs, schools try to out-compete their rivals by acquiring similar resources and developing more, but basically similar, capabilities. Michael Porter of Harvard Business School calls this “competition to be the best.” Since very few schools can be crowned “the best,” however, this is a losing proposition for most schools. Competing to be “the best” in the billion-dollar school endowment market is a tough slog even for those few programs that do have the wherewithal to outspend everyone else.
RIT’s Online Executive MBA program has taken a different approach. We’ve given significant thought to the distinctive value we can deliver, as well as to the type of students who would best benefit from our specific set of resources and capabilities. For a while, we thought our value was largely in the high-touch delivery of our program: small classes; smart committed faculty; two instructors for each class; and a dedicated and innovative staff to deliver a friction-free Executive MBA experience. While we continue to believe that high-touch in an online program is unusual, and does in fact create value, we’ve come to see that our distinctive value is in creating a meaningful MBA experience for our students, an M²BA, for short.
- A meaningful MBA provides more than a tool belt and some tools; it causes students to think differently about business as well as themselves. One graduate told us that, had he known earlier what he learned about himself during the program, he never would have taken his last job. Many of our graduates not only move to new positions, but also gain the personal insight and confidence to move to new industries.
- A meaningful MBA provides a crucible experience for curious students. It’s rigorous and intellectually rewarding. Students learn that tension and differing viewpoints among team members can be productive and positive, and that it’s not just okay to challenge someone’s position, but often necessary.
- Most MBA programs teach a basic set of skills. A meaningful MBA provides multiple opportunities to apply theory to practice. There’s a world of difference, for example, between reading a case about consulting, and actually negotiating a statement of work and then completing a messy 24-week project for a client. Coincidentally, employers increasingly tell us it’s not what students know that’s important, but what they know how to do.
- A meaningful MBA, especially an Executive MBA, provides an opportunity for students to learn not only from their instructors, but from each other as well. We know that experienced managers and executives want to engage with other seasoned individuals who have faced and addressed similar problems. This is a highly desired attribute of executive MBA programs in general, and one that we refer to as EMBA “fit.” We define this as the ability of a student to both contribute to, and benefit from, membership in a cohort and specific team for the duration of the program. This is as important as any other criterion in our admissions process.
- Finally, a meaningful MBA doesn’t happen by chance. It’s the successful outcome of a well-designed program whose curriculum, structure, and delivery all work together in a way that allows students to apply their learning right from the start, and to realize immediate returns on their investment.