4 Questions to Ask About Student Groups in Online MBA Programs

This post was originally published by US News Education, written by Ian Quillen and published July 27, 2015. See full article here.

For many students over the years, the appeal of an in-person MBA program has been just as much about the chance to make professional connections as the academic experience.

And now as online programs mature, experts say more students exploring virtual MBA options are weighing similar factors.

The network “is a big reason why one would choose an MBA,” says Dan Bursch, program director of MBA@UNC, the online MBA program at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. “So creating a tight network within a virtual community is essential. I think it’s something students are expecting.”

The availability of student clubs, groups and associations may be important to prospective online MBA students because of the chance they provide to forge close connections. Below are four questions to ask to help determine the potential quality of virtual student groups and additional networking opportunities in an online MBA program.

[Join a virtual club as an online student.]

1. Do online and on-campus students mix? Student associations at some online MBA programs may exist entirely separate from the associations for on-campus students, while others may combine membership between online, face-to-face and even blended programs. And experts say there can be benefits to both approaches.

Exclusively online student organizations may have developed better means of communicating, supporting and creating access to group activities in a virtual setting than groups catering to students in multiple mediums. On the other hand, combined groups afford access to a wider network of current and future business professionals, especially in programs where many virtual students are locally based.

At North Carolina State, for example, most online business students live within reasonable driving distance and are seeking professional connections within the area, known as the Research Triangle region. For that reason, says Claire Jefferies, the school’s Jenkins MBA program director of student and academic engagement, groups combining online and on-campus students make sense.

Jefferies adds, however, that online students should ask about the level of virtual access to activities for student associations that cater to both face-to-face and online programs.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Yes you can join,’ and another to put effort into making it easy and accommodating to them,” she says.

2. Is there dedicated faculty and funding? Fully virtual student associations may not require a physical meeting space, but benefit substantially when they are afforded dedicated funding and faculty mentoring, says Jo Cooey, president of the online Women in Business Association at Indiana University’s online MBA program, part of Kelley Direct.

Having a dedicated faculty liaison gives her group the credibility necessary to create formal relationships with external professional organizations, Cooey says. Meanwhile, dedicated funding dramatically increases the quality of virtual group events, and particularly of virtual guest speakers the group can attract.

3. Are students nearby? Although one attraction of online programs is that living near campus isn’t required, students considering online MBA programs may want to know if a program draws a lot of students from their region.

The proximity of other students may lead to a stronger groups and associations because it allows them to hold regular in-person events in addition to virtual meetings. This can be more common at state schools that attract more in-state students, experts say.

“The majority of our students live within a pretty reasonable driving distance,” Jefferies explains. “They may just work 45 minutes away and can’t come back to campus at night. We actually have quite a few online students participate in our student activities just as our face-to-face students would.”

But students considering a more distant online MBA program shouldn’t completely discount the potential for in-person interaction with other students. Some programs may have student groups centered in major metropolitan areas, Bursch says. Others may have regular residential componentsthat require students to spend a few days a year on campus or at another location.

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