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How to Choose an Online MBA Program

Search for "online MBA programs" and you'll be met with a staggering array of options. These days, it seems every institute of higher learning offers an online MBA program.

Demand for business degrees is high, especially among engineering and IT professionals, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, studies show that professionals who hold master's degrees earn more money than those with bachelor's degrees, says Bonnie Diehl, chief academic officer for the SANS Technology Institute, a for-profit educational institution offering advanced degrees in IT security management and engineering.

Second, many IT professionals who've worked in the field for a few years decide to pursue an MBA because they realize they may not be able to progress in their careers without one, says Susan Cates, executive director of the University of North Carolina's online MBA program, MBA@UNC.

"Engineers, for example, come out of their undergraduate experience and go into a functional role in a company with a very specific set of skills. As they grow and are given broader sets of responsibilities, they reach a point where their job becomes more about their leadership and management skills, their ability to think about strategy and financial decision-making, rather than about tech skills," says Cates. "When they need to broaden out their skillsets, it's a natural conclusion for folks with an IT or engineering background to see an MBA as a good path for expanding their career opportunities within their company or industry."

About half the students currently enrolled in UNC's online MBA program have a background in science, engineering or IT, adds Cates.

Martha Heller, president of Heller Search Associates, a retained executive search firm specializing in technology leaders, says that MBAs can be advantageous to CIOs with traditional technology backgrounds and to some of their direct reports, such as business relationship executives.

"What CEOs looking to hire CIOs care about is the CIO's ability to contribute as directly to the business as possible," says Heller. "The best way to demonstrate that experience is to have worked in the business, to have run a non-IT operations group, to have been a general manager. If you have that experience, the MBA is redundant."

However, if you lack that business management experience and are gunning for a career in industries that want their CIOs to make a direct contribution to the business, "an MBA will help," says Heller. "All things being equal as a recruiter, when I'm looking at a resume, I would rather see an MBA than not."

These trends have led online MBA programs to flourish. But with so many options, how can IT professionals determine which have the best reputations and meet their specific or needs Here's some advice.

1. Identify the characteristics of an online MBA program that are most important to you. Don't apply to an online MBA program just because you've heard of it, says Cates. Do some research first and consider what's most important to you in a program, whether that be the school's reputation, the quality of the teaching, the rigor of the academics, a particular concentration in a subject area, or the flexibility the program provides, she says. Your employer's HR personnel might be able to tell you which MBA programs have worked well for other employees.

2. Make sure the institutions you're considering are accredited. Some employers don't recognize degrees from non-accredited schools, notes Cates. Moreover, if a school is non-accredited, you may not be able to transfer any of your credits if you decide to enroll in an MBA program at a different institution.

3. Find the program that best fits your lifestyle and learning style. Cates says that professionals turn to online MBA programs for a variety of reasons: Many can't afford to drop out of the workforce for two years to pursue a traditional MBA. Others, due to demanding business travel schedules, can't be geographically tied to an evening or weekend executive MBA program. And some need the flexibility to take courses and complete the academics on their time.

Since online MBA programs vary in structure in style, to find the one that best suits your needs, Cates recommends asking the following questions:

What learning formats are part of the program? Books? Webinars? Video conferences?

Does the program repurpose on-site coursework for the Web, leaving you largely learning on your own? Or does it promote interaction with other students and faculty throughvideo conferencing and/or online discussion groups?

Is there on-demand access to course materials?

Is there real-time access to faculty for office hours?

When are classes held? Are they offered during times that are clearly built for working professionals, such as evenings and weekends?

Can you take classes anytime?

Can you scale up or down the number of credit hours you're taking during any given term?

Can you begin the program at different times of the year, or only in the fall?

4. Talk to current students. "There's no substitute for talking to current students to give you a sense of what is really happening in the program," says Cates. Conversations with professionals currently enrolled in the program will help you determine whether the program may meet your needs, she adds.

5. Evaluate whether the program offers career support. Good online MBA programs will offer leadership development and career coaching, says Cates. They also offer robust alumni networks that can come in handy when you're looking for a new job.


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