There’s the old marketing axiom that consumers want what they want, when they want and how they want it. 

Business schools are finding that statement to be truer than ever, as they compete to offer MBA programs to young professionals who have been immersed in technology — and the flexibility it can offer — their whole lives. 

Drake University, which has offered a hybrid classroom/online Master of Business Administration program for the past three academic years, in August launched a fully online version of its MBA program, along with a fully online Master of Public Administration offering.  

With that launch, it gained bragging rights as the first AACSB International-accredited business school in the state to offer a fully online MBA program. 

“We’re finding that our student body, the target audiences now are very technologically savvy,”  said Daniel Connolly, dean of the College of Business at Drake University. “So what we’re trying to do is provide the right mix of options and delivery formats to appeal to their needs at any given point in time.”

Drake is among a growing number of business schools worldwide that have implemented a fully online MBA. In a survey of 505 AACSB-accredited U.S. business schools, 197 indicated that they offered an online MBA. Among the 468 U.S. schools that offer master’s-level programs, those 197 schools that offer an online MBA represent 42 percent of all master’s level business programs.

Next fall, the University of Iowa will join the list of schools offering a fully online MBA program. 

The Tippie College of Business at UI in September received approval from the Board of Regents to begin offering a fully online MBA beginning next fall. It’s part of the university’s long-term strategy to increase its investment in MBA programs serving working professionals. 

The target enrollment for the fully online program is a conservative slice of the estimated market. Each online course will be capped at 45 students, with a target enrollment of 250 students for the fully online program.  

“We expect there is potential demand far exceeding what we can handle,” said David Frasier, associate dean of MBA programs for the Tippie College of Business. 

Meanwhile, Iowa State University’s Ivy College of Business is taking a more cautious approach to online programs. While online courses may be the right approach for certain specialized master’s programs, the college has concerns about shifting an entire MBA program online, Dean David Spalding said. 

“We think that in-person interaction is a critical part of an MBA program,” Spalding said. “Until you solve the problem of how you have the problem-solving and team-building elements online, I think you need to continue to have in-person classes.”

Pent-up demand 

Drake’s online MBA is part of a universitywide effort to build its online master’s-level program offerings, said Danette Kenne, assistant dean of graduate and professional studies. Drake is targeting total enrollment in online master’s classes of 300 students. 

In addition to strong initial interest in the online MBA and MPA programs, the online Master of Data Analytics program is also generating a lot of interest — with applications that began rolling in on the first day, Connolly said. 

“So we don’t know what our full potential is, but all indicators are that [online] is a very promising space,” he said. “We think we’re getting in at a good time because we’ve learned from the trials and tribulations of those who have skinned their knees [with early attempts] so that we can come in at a better place than where they started.” 

A number of factors are contributing to the growth in demand for an online MBA, not the least of which is the demand for professionals seeking to increase their credentials for promotions or to change careers. 

“People are looking for better work-life balance, so there’s an opportunity for them to fit in schooling,” Connolly said. “And I think it allows them to pace the progress, not only for fitting everything in, but also to pace the payments over a period of time so it makes it more accessible and affordable to them.” 

Even taking classes on a part-time basis, students can complete the hybrid classroom/online MBA in as little as two years if they take advantage of the year-round classes, Kenne said. 

“They can also stretch it out if they want, because they have five years to complete the degree,” she said. “So that gives people that chance to really complement the pace at which they complete the requirements, [depending on] how it fits across their personal and professional lives. It lets students really drive that, because it’s flexible from term to term. 

Students also benefit from knowing at the beginning of each term exactly which weeks classes will be held in the classroom and which will be virtual.  

“So if they want to plan business trips or personal things, they know when they’re expected to be on campus and when they’re expected to connect virtually. It’s been well-received,” Kenne said. “People like to connect to people and talk face-to-face, and we provide that community engagement. We have organizations for opportunities for people to have that engagement and networking.” 

To use a driving analogy, the hybrid format “has done very well in allowing people to basically pick what lane they want to drive in, if you will,” Connolly added. “And we work with them to keep the target in mind.” 

What’s under the hood?

Technology is allowing professors to truly innovate how they deliver course content, Connolly said. Although the university has been producing online courses for a number of years, the online MBA and MPA are the first entire programs offered fully online. 

“The content and the quality are the same, but the delivery is different, as you can imagine,” he said. “What we’ve been working on is, how do we harness the true capabilities that technology brings to the table to create very meaningful learning experiences? It’s not just taking what’s in the classroom and putting it online; we needed to tap into what the technology capabilities are.” 

Each Drake faculty member who teaches online courses goes through extensive training that includes a rigorous evaluation process to ensure quality and consistency across the institution, Connolly said. 

“Oftentimes what we’re seeing is that online and face-to-face are blurring, because you use the technology to enhance the learning wherever you are,” he said. “A lot of times, teaching in these modalities really helps a professor develop his or her toolkit.” 

The fully online programs will create new opportunities to attract students, particularly Drake alumni whose careers have taken them to larger metro areas. 

“They’d love to come back to Drake, but their life circumstances don’t allow them to be in Des Moines,” Connolly said. “So we were getting a lot of people knocking on our doors looking for online, and we recognized where the trends are going. People want a lot of degrees of flexibility.” 

Tippie plans three-year ramp-up 

Tippie administrators announced a year ago that the college would phase out its full-time MBA program by May 2019, which the college said would enable it to increase investments in MBA programs that serve working professionals. 

Tippie’s new online program will initially focus on serving working professionals within the state, particularly in western Iowa counties where UI has been unable to provide in-person classes given the distances and limited number of faculty, said Frasier, associate dean. “With elimination of the full-time program, that freed up faculty, and being online, distances weren’t a consideration,” he said. 

The business school will ramp up the online program over a three-year period to offer about 54 online sections, with the first classes beginning next fall, Frasier said. Each online course will be capped at 45 students, with a target enrollment of 250 students for the fully online program.  

Amy Kristof-Brown, senior associate dean at Tippie, is also an instructor in the test version of the online program sections that the school is now developing. 

Millennials currently make up the largest group of working adults in U.S. companies, she noted. “Personal development is a big focus for them, and [they want] flexible scheduling to fit more things into a day,” she said. 

Many students are taking advantage of the shorter certificate programs; the all-online program will take that a step further, Kristof-Brown said. 

“The online format enables us to further increase that flexibility,” she said. For instance, many of her current students taking an online course live and work in Iowa, but chose for convenience to take the class online. 

“Others are students who started their degree in Iowa, but are now in Chicago or New Jersey, and it’s allowing them to complete their degree,” she said. 

The road ahead 

Looking to the future, Kristof-Brown believes the “vast majority” of students will prefer a mix of online and in-person classes, versus perhaps 20 percent who may want to take all-online classes. 

“I think there will be a mix of students taking courses the way they want to,” she said. “If we can provide things in a format that makes it easier for them to access, I think our enrollment will continue to go up. I think most of our students will end up in some hybrid version that meets their needs.” 

For Kristof-Brown, the most exciting aspect of online is the enhanced accessibility it provides. 

“It’s opening up access to every corner of the state, as well as to alums who have moved out of state,” she said.