A business school located in rural northeastern U.S. faces a tough challenge. With so many high-profile schools concentrated in bustling urban centers such as Boston and New York City, how can a program in a smaller market compete? The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst has devised an unusual strategy. Starting this fall, all students accepted into its full-time two-year MBA program—a cohort of 44—will become MBA Fellows. That means the school will cover their annual tuition of US$15,000, provide an annual stipend of $8,600, and offer healthcare.
John Wells, Isenberg’s associate dean, understands the collective gasp he might hear from other business school administrators at the thought. But hear him out. He explains that the MBA Fellowship is a strategic move to improve the school’s visibility in the market—and, ironically, to support its much larger Isenberg Online MBA, which enrolls approximately 1,200 students.
“Amherst is considered rural compared to Boston, so attracting students has been a challenge,” he says. “We’ve offered financial incentives in the past, but by giving on-campus MBA students full funding, we believe we will attract a higher caliber of student. We couldn’t offer free tuition to 80 or 100 students a year, but our on-campus program is small—a kind of ‘boutique MBA’—so we can afford to invest in the best.”
The MBA Fellowship program is part of the school’s plan to revamp its curriculum to more fully integrate its online and on-campus programs—as opposed to segregating them, as many schools do.
“When students discover that an online program is separate from the traditional MBA, it loses its luster. That’s where the stigma against online programs came from,” says Wells. “We’re using technology to connect students in our online and blended MBA programs with our students on campus both synchronously and asynchronously. We’re making a concerted effort to blur that line and remove that stigma, so that our online students feel as if they’re having a ‘true Amherst experience.’”
By the time the first cohort of MBA Fellows graduates, Wells hopes to see all Isenberg MBA students report higher levels of satisfaction with their courses, take top jobs, and earn higher salaries. He also hopes that the Isenberg School will differentiate itself in its crowded market and enhance its position in the rankings— which, in turn, will allow it to attract even better students.
DELIVERING THE PROGRAM
Tuition and expenses for the 44 fellows will be at least partially supported by online tuition fees. Resident MBA students are often ten years younger than their online counterparts with less experience and fewer financial resources, Wells explains. Because online MBA students work full time and often receive tuition assistance from their organizations, they are more likely to be able to afford the tuition. By investing in the on-campus fellows, the school hopes to provide its online students with richer interactions and elevate the learning experiences of everyone involved.
To bring online and on-campus students together, the school will use platforms such as Fuze, an online meeting platform, and Blackboard Collaborate. The school also has introduced a consulting practicum and plans to hold a case competition. In each, online and on-campus students will team up to solve business problems. “Faculty will hold synchronous discussions that mix in-residence and online students, so each can learn with—and from—the best,” says Wells.
The school has pilot-tested its integrated approach in a strategy class, where online students were included in the delivery of the on-campus course. “Our online students don’t want to wonder how old the video lecture is that they’ve been viewing,” says Wells. “What they liked the most was that this was a live class covering current topics.”
The Isenberg School plans for modest growth in its online programs, which means the need for more ongoing support for its faculty. It employs a full-time online learning specialist who consults with faculty on course design. If one professor discovers an approach that works well online, the specialist introduces that technique to other professors.
The school takes full advantage of faculty training courses offered through the e-learning department at the university’s Center for Continuing Professional Education, which supports online education at UMass Amherst across all disciplines.
The school uses a small core of scholarly academics to lead course design and instruction. These faculty manage a larger group of affiliated faculty, comprising adjuncts and practitioners, to teach sections of the larger courses.
The introduction of the MBA Fellowship already has been paying “big dividends,” says Wells. The number of applications to the fulltime Isenberg MBA program went from 220 in 2013-2014 to 320 for the upcoming academic year; the number of students accepted into the program increased by 22 percent, from 36 students to 44 students. Their average GMAT score has increased by approximately 20 points.
Through the MBA Fellowship and its curricular revision, the school wants to develop a different kind of “blended” program, which connects students online who already have significant experience with high quality less experienced students on campus. “We don’t think of our college as having 44 students in its resident MBA program and 1,200 in its online program,” says Wells. “The way we view it, we have 1,244 students in our MBA program.”
Succeeding in online delivery, he emphasizes, is a matter of providing students with exceptional educational experiences, which is what the MBA Fellows program is designed to support. “Business schools all have access to the same technology. But to use that technology well, we also must invest in our staff, our resources, and our students,” says Wells. “What matters isn’t the technology. What matters is execution.”