From 2003 to 2006, I took classes at the University of Phoenix Online with the eventual grant of a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) degree. After receiving the degree, I wrote about my experiences with the school in a five part series. For some background, read the series in these parts: The Decision, Admissions, Course Logistics, Curriculum, and The Team Experience. At the time, I planned to extend the series to share my thoughts on dealing with the administration and financial aid, but the will to continue to series waned, and I ended the series with just five articles, more than enough to give readers an adequate picture of completing this degree.
The University of Phoenix Online is a “for-profit” school, and by this virtue, there isn’t much respect for the school in the academic community — a community that also looks for profit despite “not-for-profit” status with the government. Most of the derision is not deserved, but that is the state of the community today, and it is not changing. There are, of course, other differences between The University of Phoenix and a traditional research-focused university, and those can’t be ignored. The question is whether they matter.
I should also point out what the University of Phoenix Online is not: It is not a research-based institution, which means that they don’t provide grants to professors, faculty, or graduate students to embark on studies that advance the field of knowledge in any particular academic area. It is also not a diploma mill; I am not familiar with the experience at this University at the undergraduate level, but with the MBA I pursued, the courses generally increased in difficulty to the point where at the end of my studies, the only classmates who survived were very knowledgeable in their own fields, mostly upper-level executives in major companies or entrepreneurs who ran their own businesses, and at least twice my age. (I was thirty when I received my degree.) These MBA degrees were not handed out willy-nilly to anyone who paid the price of tuition.
In terms of tuition, the courses were not inexpensive. I wouldn’t have enrolled in the first place if my employer didn’t offer to pay for almost all of the costs. In fact, I was more interested in furthering my education in any way possible; my employer would only pay for a master’s degree in business.
As I mentioned in the article about my decision to earn an MBA at this school, I had my first exposure to online-based learning models for higher education through a graduate program at the University of Delaware in 1998. The concept of meeting with professors and classmates online and using the internet to facilitate learning was not new to me in 2003 when I enrolled at the University of Phoenix Online. I knew that most people didn’t understand the concept of earning a degree online and there were still strong misconceptions. I saw the trend of other, more reputable schools beginning to imitate the University of Phoenix Online model, so I assumed that within a few years, this type of learning would be more mainstream.
Time has shown that this assumption was wrong. People generally still do not respect “online degrees,” particularly not from schools whose organization is a for-profit public corporation.
At the same time, more people were earning MBA degrees than ever before, leading others to question the value of this degree regardless of the name of the school. For me, an MBA was the best way to continue my education and earn a new degree spending very little money. I could continue to spend my time working at my day job, building Consumerism Commentary and other online projects, and perhaps learn information that would help me with both of those aspects of my life.
If I had waited another year before embarking on this journey, I might have seen more traditional schools offering similar programs and chosen to attend online classes offered by a more reputable institution.
Today, the content I learned during these MBA courses has been somewhat helpful, but not essential, to where I am today. I gained some insight about operating a business and decision making, but I might have just as well come to the same conclusions through working experience. The team environment within the courses did provide unique opportunities for dealing with uncooperative teammates and resolving conflicts, skills which should be useful when working with others, but I have to say I have met few people as useless as the teammates in the first few courses at the University of Phoenix Online. The skills I learned in conflict resolution in the class helped more with dealing with the university’s financial aid department than dealing with anyone outside of the university.
In all seriousness, most of what I learned through these classes I could have learned on my own but didn’t; being in an organized class thrust the knowledge upon me. The classes didn’t get really interesting until the last few, in which the coursework pertained to meaningful executive-level decision making through simulations, case studies, and discussions with classmates who had vast experience to share.
If I were given the opportunity to earn an MBA today with the goal of getting a great job at a company that respects MBA degrees in general, all other things being equal, I’d choose a top school. If the flexibility of taking classes online is important and I had no concern for the additional work that is required to succeed in a virtual environment, only then would I choose an online program. If I were to consider price alone without the need for any perceived prestige, I would choose the school that offers the degree for the best cost. With any degree, the level of education you receive corresponds to the amount of effort you put into the academic portion of taking the class, so if the only consideration is the knowledge and you enjoy the type of guidance that comes through a structured degree program, then any degree program will do.
If you want to be loved by Human Resources departments, list a top school on your résumé and don’t include the word “online.” If you plan to succeed on your own terms, do whatever you like. Either way, always continue learning.