Student Voices: Will The Perception Ever Change?

Prior to enrolling in MBA@UNC, I never really paid much attention to the press coverage of online programs.

Truth be told, it was the only program I considered; a top-20 school I can attend from anywhere - it was a bit of a no brainer in my opinion. I’m an “all eggs in the UNC basket” kind of gal anyway - Chapel Hill was the only undergraduate institution where I applied as well, but I digress. Now that I am in the program I read the various news articles on online MBA programs out of curiosity, and I chose to contribute to this blog to show others what life was like in the MBA@UNC program as well as help dispel any myths about the online experience.

That said, an article featured in the FINS section of last week’s Wall Street Journal on “The Downside and Upside of an Online MBA” by Beecher Tuttle led me to believe that perhaps our student blogs do not do enough to accurately portray student life in this program. Doug Shackelford, the program’s associate dean, said that the University aimed to “shatter the perceptions of online education” with the introduction of this program.   

Perceptions will only change through education. I hope this post will be provide better insight to prospective students, hiring managers and reporters alike when evaluating  MBA@UNC.

Myth #1: Inability to provide practice in interpersonal skills, such as team oriented projects and public presentations - I obviously cannot speak for other online programs, but I had to chuckle at the irony of these “weaknesses” of an online program. Friends who attended various full-time top business programs always marveled at how their professors could turn any assignment into a group project. I have yet to experience any deviation from this path. My cohort is nearly half way through the program and group projects have comprised 20-40 percent of our grades and coursework thus far. As for presentations, we’ve had at least one per class in addition to an entire course dedicated to business communications where we presented on different topics every single week. Not to mention, the professors know if you haven’t watched the asynchronous material prior to the live class meeting each week. (The downside of this online program:It’s really tough to be a slacker when your class attendance is time stamped.) We might not have to formally present, but when you only have just 10-15 people per class you can count on talking quite a bit. Everyone sits on the front row  in this program.

Myth #2: Inability to make real-world connections, “meet” the right people or network - One of the recurring themes my fellow bloggers and I have  touched on is how the relationships we’ve formed over the last nine months surpassed all our expectations.  Though, when you spend three hours a week in class and usually another four-six meeting about projects or homework assignments it’s impossible not to develop a relationship with your fellow classmates, which the quarterly global immersions have only reinforced. I wasn’t really sure what the article meant by “meeting the right people” or how one defines the right people. My cohort (we all started in July) represents 10 states and a wide variety of industries, from aerospace to medical technology.  Since I spent the last decade in the financial industry, most everyone I knew prior to starting MBA@UNC was in banking or investments; given the diversity of this program, this program continues to vastly expand my network.

Myth #3:  On-premise business schools can mimic the corporate environment - It’s 2012, not 1992 or even 2002. We live in the digital age. The traditional corporate environment where teams must sit around the same table in order to accomplish anything is obsolete. MBA@UNC embodies the present and future, rather than looking to mimic the past. Truthfully, I wouldn’t be surprised to see certain aspects of the online program eventually make their way into the full time program in order to better prepare tomorrow’s candidates for certain realities of corporate life. At the end of the day, for some an online degree could never replace a full-time degree and for others a traditional program will never be in the cards.  No amount of education will change that, so I’ll wrap up with this. To prospective students: If you are looking at an online program to simply “check the MBA block,” there are far easier ways than MBA@UNC. To all others: I hope the perception that online is a euphemism for lower quality, even at UNC, fades with your own edification about the program, because learning is like rowing upstream: not to advance is to drop back.  

About Kristen Fanarakis: Kristen spent the last 13 years working in financial services after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a BA in economics and political science.  She started her career in investment management in Boston where she earned her masters in international economics part-time.  She spent the last seven years in foreign exchange sales covering institutional managers for various Wall Street banks.