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Hybrid M.B.A.s Offer Flexible Option

M.B.A. programs that mix online instruction with limited on-campus time are becoming a popular option for prospective business school students who want to attend brand-name schools without giving up their jobs, relocating or trekking to campus for classes several nights a week.

These hybrid programs are also a boon to schools, particularly as the schools look to boost revenue at a time when the recession has left endowments flagging and alumni donations are hard to come by. The programs are also less expensive for schools to run partly because students in the programs use fewer campus services and resources.

After the initial investment in a hybrid—which can be several hundred thousand dollars to $1 million and up—costs to keep the programs going are relatively low, says Dan LeClair, vice president and chief knowledge officer at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the largest of three main business school accreditation bodies.

Professors and schools do the bulk of the work or preparation upfront but contribute less face time as time goes on.

When Sarah Fisher, a Johnson & Johnson employee, decided a few years ago to get an M.B.A. to enhance her chances of landing an overseas assignment, she looked for a program that was flexible—so she could keep working—but had enough prestige to get herpromoted.

She found such a program in Babson College’s Fast Track M.B.A., a seven-year-old part-time program that blends a limited amount of on-campus time with a heavy online component, including live streaming video lectures.

The Babson program, along with other hybrid M.B.A.s offered at a number of well-known schools, costs students roughly as much as a traditional full-time program and uses the same professors as the full-time M.B.A program. These programs even include group project work—a hallmark of many M.B.A. programs—which is done virtually via conference call or Skype.

“At first, I was reluctant,” says Ms. Fisher, as she worried that an M.B.A. achieved mostly online would have diminished value, even within her own company. But she enrolled in the program anyway in 2008 and the gamble paid off: In June, she shifted to brand management abroad for the company.

There are, however, notable differences between hybrids and traditional campus M.B.A. programs. For one, hybrid programs often have less stringent admission standards—Babson College doesn’t require the GMAT, for example—though there are some exceptions. These programs also tend to cut out elective courses, which can be valuable to career-changers. And students who want to take advantage of the school’s offerings find they have less access to faculty or campus resources, like career services, because they’re not regularly on campus.

Despite the potential drawbacks, the programs continue to grow in scope and size. Schools have reported that applications are up significantly in the past year. Duke University’s Cross Continent M.B.A, which is delivered 60% online, for example, saw a 50% increase in applications over last year for the class beginning in August.

Still, for students hoping to network with their peers or get the career guidance typical M.B.A. students receive, hybrid programs might disappoint. Since upward of 70% of class time is online for most programs, there is little face time with faculty and fewer opportunities for personal interaction between other students, something many b-school graduates say is the most valuable part of an M.B.A.

Scott Cronin, a Babson Fast Track grad and accounts supervisor at Fidelity Investments, says the program leveled the career playing field for him, and he saw classmates make successful career changes. But there was still lack of face time with fellow classmates, who are together all the time during a full-time program, he added.

Andy Policano, dean of the University of California at Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business, says that lack of togetherness is one reason more business schools haven’t launched hybrids.

“There just isn’t enough team building or interpretation of emotional quotients,” he says. That’s particularly true for those with scientific or engineering backgrounds who often need to learn soft skills that in-person interaction teaches, he says.

Duke and other schools that offer these combo programs, like Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh and Babson College of Massachusetts, insist that despite the obvious differences, the option provides the same training as a typical M.B.A. program while expanding the schools’ reach.

Bill Boulding, deputy dean at Duke, says the school’s hybrid program appeals to internationally based professionals who don’t want to relocate to rural North Carolina for two years but want a Duke education.

“We don’t have the same advantage as some of our peers who are located in a major metropolitan area,” says Mr. Boulding, adding that the school aims “to court the students who are aiming at international assignments with their companies.”

Marketing for hybrid programs is also being expanded at most schools that offer them, chiefly through building relationships with corporate human resource managers.

That effort is just as much about luring students as it is about proving that hybrid M.B.A. programs are as good as campus programs. Currently, how hiring managers feel about hybrid programs varies from company to company.

Since students of these combo programs typically don’t participate in campus recruiting, most won’t go head-to-head for jobs with their two-year counterparts and end up able to simply list their degree on a resume without indicating that it was achieved in a hybrid program.

Brett Good, district president of Robert Half International, a staffing firm, says many corporate hiring managers still have misgivings about the integrity of programs that rely heavily on Web-based technology.

Still, Mr. Good says that view has softened somewhat as those offering jobs become more comfortable with technology.

John Williams, a 2005 grad of Duke’s Cross Continent M.B.A. program, says he was able to command a higher salary and position at a technology-market-research firm after completing the program.

“For most employers, they said it was a good school, it sounds like a good program, and that’s good enough for them,” he says.

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