The first intake for the new Michigan Ross part-time online MBA will be in fall 2019; tuition is expected to be $113,000 for in-state students and $123,000 for those from out-of-state. Michigan Ross photo
The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business announced August 21 that it will launch a Part-time Online MBA program in the fall of 2019, becoming one of the top schools in the United States to offer online MBA courses.
If Michigan maintains its current spot at No. 7 in the latest U.S. News & World Report full-time ranking, as well as its place at No. 6 in the U.S. News part-time ranking, it will be the highest-ranked U.S. school to commit so much to online MBA instruction. (The same is true of our ranking.) It’s a power move by Michigan, with the ambitious goal of “leading and defining the future of business education.” Will it spark a rush among other elite schools to do more online? Or will it dilute the Ross brand?
“We are dedicated to providing a broader base of working professionals with a high-quality Michigan Ross education, plus the flexibility, academic rigor, and support they need to succeed in business today and in the future,” says Wally Hopp, Michigan’s associate dean for the part-time MBA and director of the new Part-time Online MBA. “But ‘diluting the brand’ is something we think about. A lot of people go to the notion that somehow online will degrade your brand, and the justification for that is generally that online programs are perceived as low-quality right now. On the other hand, if you look at many of the schools that offer online programs, their residential programs aren’t high-quality either, so I’m not sure that it follows that a top-tier school should put out a low-quality program.
“Ross isn’t the only school innovating on the online frontier — everybody’s doing it to some degree, the question is, What’s going to shake out to be the right way? What are the best practices? And here at Ross, we’re committed to finding the best practices to serve our students, to train future business leaders, and we think that it would be criminal on our part to ignore the huge developments that have taken place in the online space.”
COST SET BELOW OTHER ROSS MBA OPTIONS
Wally Hopp. Michigan Ross photo
Costing $113,000 for in-state tuition and $123,000 for out-of-state — figures that Hopp says were “benchmarked against other universities’ programs” — Michigan’s new Part-time Online MBA joins the Ross School’s wide range of MBA formats: Full-time, Evening, Weekend (where online classes have been a limited part of the program for a few years now), Executive, and Global. The new offering will be a hybrid program, with three in-person residencies on the Ross campus focused on leadership, business transformation, and innovation; the distance element will include courses that are both self-guided study and live, online sessions led by a Ross professor. The cost was intentionally set below the estimated total cost for a degree through either the Evening or Weekend programs, Hopp says, which comes out to about $128,000 for in-state and $138,000 for out-of-state students. The Michigan Ross Full-time MBA costs an estimated $127,292 and $137,292, respectively.
“We’re positioning this below the price of a full-time or even a part-time residential program, because the students don’t make as heavy use of our extensive resources on campus,” Hopp tells Poets&Quants. “So we’re passing along some of the savings to them.”
Even so, Ross’ pricing will be at the top end of the online MBA market. Carnegie Mellon’s online-hybird program currently costs $133,680, while MBA@UNC at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School comes in at a total cost of $124,345, including two required immersions. The cost of the Ross online option also would be considerably above KelleyDirect, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business online MBA, which is priced at $67,830, or the online MBA at USC’s Marshall School which now costs $105,542.
There will be two intakes per year, Hopp says, in the fall and winter. A third intake is a possibility down the road. As with other Ross programs, students will have a maximum 10 years to finish their degree — an almost absurd amount of time that would certainly prompt “a conversation on moving it along,” says Patti Russo, managing director of Ross’s part-time programs. But they also can finish in as few as two years, effectively making the part-time program a full-time one.
NOT (YET) TIME FOR A FULL-TIME ONLINE ROSS MBA
Michigan’s commitment to doing more in the online space will certainly raise eyebrows, and may even impact plans, at peer schools. After all, most schools ranked higher overall than Michigan by either Poets&Quants or U.S. News don’t even offer part-time MBA programs, though UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, tied with Michigan at No. 7 in the overall U.S. News ranking, has had the top-ranked part-time program for many years. The only other top school with a full- or part-time program that offers online MBA courses is UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, which offers a hybrid format for its Fully Employed MBA, a part-time program that was ranked No. 5 on the 2019 U.S. News list. Other very high-quality MBA courses have been online for years: The programs at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School Business and Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business were named Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in P&Q‘s inaugural online MBA ranking in February, and despite its disappointing placement in the same ranking the MBA@UNC at Kenan-Flagler Business School has long been considered by many to be the gold standard of online MBA degrees.
But those are top-20 business schools, not top-10 schools. For the upper echelon of B-schools — most of which don’t even offer options for part-time MBA study, let alone online courses — Michigan Ross dipping a toe (and possibly more) into the online space is sure to cause reverberations.
An obvious question then becomes: Can we expect greater reverberations? With the door now open, will Ross soon launch a full-time online MBA?
“In the near future, no, because we don’t know how to achieve all of our goals for business education online,” Hopp says. “So we’re still thinking of various mixes of a hybrid program. We have from the fully residential to the only-a-little-bit residential. To go full-time online, we’re going to have to be convinced that we can do some of the network-building and community-building online — and we’re going to try hard to do that. We have been working hard to replicate some of the co-curricular experiences that MBA students have, through the online medium.
“Right now business education is set up so that we say, ‘You must come to a campus, take two years off work, spend all this time face-to-face — and then when you graduate you’re going to manage people over video conferencing and telecommunications channels because that’s the way that global organizations work.’ But this gives us an opportunity to take those students and educate them in some of those same media that they’re going to actually work in as managers. I’m not convinced that it’s impossible to build the social networks through a fully online channel. I just don’t know how to do it yet.”
The deadline to enroll in the new Ross Part-time Online MBA is May 20, 2019. The admission process “will be rather traditional,” Hopp says. GRE scores will be accepted in addition to GMAT; applicants will still need to present letters of recommendation and go through an interview, as they would for most part- or full-time programs. The school’s goal will be to maintain the high quality of the residential part-time programs, Hopp says, which may mean a slow start in terms of actual enrollment.
“We’re not anticipating starting with huge numbers,” he says. “We’re going to take in people that we believe can perform at the Ross level — the same caliber of students that we’re admitting into our part-time programs now. I expect that to be a smallish class for the first intake, but hopefully because we’re not geographically constrained we’ll grow that over time and be able to expand the impact and the access to a Ross education.” He adds that because of the residential component, “we would not be able to handle 1,000 students in the first cohort,” but “we have the ability to scale quickly.”
How long before the new program achieves a “steady state”?
“I think it’s going to take us three years to ramp up to a somewhat steady state. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still growing in three years,” Hopp says. “But it’s going to take us three years to fully roll out all of the electives, all of the residential experiences, to have a real fully fleshed-out program. And by that time, once we’re three years out, we’ll start to be graduating people. I’ve launched programs in the past, and my experience is, you’re not whole until you’ve put your students into jobs.”
IN NEW PROGRAM, OLD COMMITMENT TO ‘ACTION-BASED LEARNING’
Ross officials talk a lot about action-based learning, a foundation of the school’s approach since the advent of the Multidisciplinary Action Project, or MAP, more than a quarter-century ago. MAP, in which students work in teams to find creative solutions to a company’s business challenge, is a requirement in all MBA programs offered by Ross — and that will include the new part-time online offering, as well.
“Our big mission here at Ross is to train new business leaders, and we train business leaders in all different flavors,” Hopp tells Poets&Quants. “The part-time MBA program is focused on people who are trying to study and work at the same time. And so over the years we’ve had great people in these programs who work really hard and make this connection between what they’re learning and what they’re doing at work very immediately, and so it’s really a powerful manifestation of the signature action-based learning approach to business education that Ross has defined for many years. Twenty-five years ago, we launched what we call MAP, which is a signature part of all of our MBA education, and in the part-time MBA, MAP is one way that we do action-based learning — but we also do it in the form of actually having people in their jobs putting what they’re learning in the classroom into practice.”
More than 12,000 students have participated in MAP projects in more than 98 countries since it was integrated into the Ross MBA in the early 1990s. In 2017, Ross took the learning-by-doing concept further with the creation of the Living Business Leadership Experience course that allows students to assume leadership roles in an existing company or nonprofit organization on a long-term basis.
“What we’re doing now is — just like we did 25 years ago by introducing MAP — we’re trying to push out that envelope by pushing the experiential learning, the action-based learning part of our education process even further,” Hopp says. “So we’ve introduced a new version called the Living Business Model, in which students not only work in business organizations but are accountable — they’re actually responsible for launching new business categories and doing things like that. What we’ve found is that the more we push out the experiential learning, the more we have to sort of offload the basic concept building, the canonical education part of the degree program. And so that is how we turned to technology. We didn’t just launch an online MBA in one fell swoop, we’ve been progressing toward it.”
Adds Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School: “At Michigan Ross, we are deeply committed to preparing students for success in the ever-changing world of business. We’re delivering the same high-quality Michigan Ross education using a flexible design that brings together innovations in digital education with our deep commitment to action-based learning.”
‘BEST-KNOWN, DECORATED TEACHERS’ AMONG FACULTY IN NEW PROGRAM
The new part-time online program has three components: asynchronous self-study online modules, synchronous (group) work that takes place online, and residencies. “We have these required residences in the program where students will gather come to Ross or to some other location and we will engage them in action-based learning exercises,” Hopp says. “Some cases will involve companies and other cases will involve some of our role-playing leadership exercises that we’ve developed. And in some cases they will actually integrate with the other MBA students here at Ross. For instance, in the leadership residency, students will come back and they will engage in a crisis challenge where we present them with a fictional crisis that they have to deal with in teams — but those teams will not jut be online MBAs, they will also be Weekend MBAs or Evening MBAs or Full-time MBAs.
“This program will be very much integrated into the community of Ross and these students will not just be a distance population but will really be citizens of Ross.”
A key element of that integration: faculty. About 15 are in the initial cohort developing content, Hopp says, but there will be more going forward when electives have been established. “It will be a pretty good chunk of our faculty when all is said and done,” he says. “If you look right now at those 15 faculty, these are stars — we’ve got some of our very best-known, decorated teachers who have stood up and said, ‘I want to participate in this, this is on the leading edge, this is an important thing to be involved in.’ They’re excited. So I’m really expecting some great quality in these first courses that we’re developing because the personnel are just so talented.”
Michigan Ross has not yet chosen a technology platform for its new program, Hopp says, though they are “in conversations” with Noodle and evaluating other technology providers for best fit. Nor has the school landed on any concentrations to offer, largely because the available electives haven’t been determined. All this will be set “eventually,” Hopp says. Given the timing of the launch, a hookup with 2U, one of the largest online education players, appears unlikely. 2U recently announced that three more business schools plan to launch online MBAs on its technology platform next year, a move that would give the provider a portfolio of 10 different online MBA options by the end of 2019, including the business schools at UNC, Rice and UC-Davis.
“The way we laid out this program is, we made a template for it to grow into. And so concentrations were on the list of things to be built in later, and we know what the areas of concentration that students are most interested in — the trick is to get enough electives and then group them into concentrations,” Hopp says. “We’re not requiring students to take a concentration, we’re simply saying, if you want to follow a career path like this — if you want to go down a marketing, brand management path, for example — here is a set of courses that will support you in achieving that goal.”
‘DILUTING THE BRAND’? NOT BY A LONG SHOT, HOPP SAYS
The idea that Michigan Ross is “diluting its brand” by venturing so strongly into the online space is mostly nonsense, Hopp says. Instead, he says, look at this new program as an investment in innovation and quality — in other words, the future.
“My response is, I’m not worried about diluting our brand, what I would be worried about is if we were worried about it, because it would mean we were not willing to take the risks and take the innovative steps that we need to really push the envelope of business education,” he says. “Twenty-five years ago when we launched MAP, it was the strangest, weirdest thing anybody had done, and if you look at the press that we got on that, other schools said things like, ‘That’s ridiculous, it’s too expensive, it’s too nontraditional, it’s not academic enough,’ and so forth. Now everybody does it. So I think that the same thing is gonna be true here.
“I don’t believe you ever dilute your brand by investing in innovation and quality, and that’s what we’re doing.”