Iowa joining the race toward online MBAs

The University of Iowa is set to join Drake, Mount Mercy and others offering full online options.


By Katharine Carlon

It wasn’t that long ago that an online MBA on a candidate’s resume for a top job was apt to land directly in the circular file. Today, however, a sea of change in business student interest and growing employer acceptance has prompted a number of new online MBA programs at top-flight universities, including a growing number in Iowa.

Davenport-based Kaplan University – now Purdue Global – was one of the pioneers, offering an online MBA starting in 2005. Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids debuted its fully online MBA in fall 2017. Drake University in Des Moines last month announced it was launching its own online offering. Now, the University of Iowa is preparing to launch its MBA program in an all-online format following an approval by the Iowa Board of Regents at its September meeting.

“In terms of MBA demand, we’ve seen a fairly significant shift in demand to part-time and flexible,” said David Frasier, associate dean of MBA programs and an adjunct lecturer at UI’s Tippie College of Business. He added that the university’s part-time Professional MBA program already comprises “by far the bulk” of its MBA candidates, with 960 enrollees versus 35 in the final year of the full-time MBA program, which is being phased out.

In addition to flexibility and the ability to work at their own speed with up to 10 years to complete the program, Mr. Frasier said the online format will allow the UI to offer the degree to all four corners of the state. The existing part-time degree has been offered in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities since the 1960s and in Des Moines since the early 1990s.

“For a number of years, we’ve been getting requests from the western part of the state asking, ‘Can you please come here?’” he said, adding that it was not feasible to send faculty and resources to the farthest reaches of the state. “This gives us far more flexibility to offer small courses, about 45 students per course section, and offer them everywhere.”

The shift is part of a national trend that saw the number of online MBA programs vault from 180 in 2017 to 270 this year, according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranks such programs annually. More options are appearing monthly, and MBA candidates are expressing high satisfaction levels with online programs. A recent Poets&Quants survey of recent online MBA graduates giving their programs an average score of 9.22 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“The perception of online degrees has changed,” Mr. Frasier said. “In many ways, this was driven by the fact many more high-quality institutions are providing that option. In the Big Ten, for instance, we will be number 10 of 14 to move to having a program fully online. So a lot of good quality peer institutions are doing it and doing it very well.”

Research conducted for UI by Hanover Research suggests the target market for an online MBA is between 330-550 students per year, although faculty resource constraints mean the university is anticipating 90 new MBA students for the 2019-2020 academic year, 180 in 2020-2021 and 240 annually between 2021-2026.

The UI will begin offering its online MBA in fall 2019. Mr. Frasier said faculty is currently ramping up the framework of courses to be offered, standardizing the look and feel of materials, and developing high-quality video content. The online program will include real-time synchronous segments with real-time exchanges and the ability for teams to jump online together to discuss projects and collaborate.

“The faculty is really excited about the new format,” he said. “The general reaction is positive and even [the few faculty hold-outs] are overcoming some of their hesitancy and getting excited about how to develop this new curriculum.”

UPDATED 9/16/18: This story has been updated to reflect the Iowa Board of Regents’ approval of Iowa’s new online MBA program at its Sept. 12-13 meeting.