Online degrees…are they worth it? What about MBAs in general?

I've been asked this question before. Here's the MSN article on the subject. I agree that online degrees from well-known schools (the article cites Stanford), are a good bet since the curriculum is usually the same as the regular class-room based program. We (Microsoft) do tend to do a lot of recruiting from top MBA programs so I do think that if you are going to spend the time and money to get an MBA, the quality of the program should be your first concern, especially if you want to work at a top company.

When I think of the value of the MBA to a potential job seeker, I think of 2 things:

1) the skills you learn in the program that may prepare you for the type of work you would like to do

2) the fact that the MBA (especially from a really solid programs) differentiates you from the masses of other folks that could be applying for the job.

With #1, I definitely feel that there are opportunities for people to gain the same skills outside of an MBA program, through equivalent work experience. Typically, the latter is less theoretical, more practical (and of course, MBAs go on to jobs where they use their educations in practice as well). So for positions that require these specific skills, hiring managers should be willing to hire folks with or without an MBA; really focusing on the skills themselves, regardless of where they came from. With #2, there's a prestige factor associated with some schools and with the fact that you were disciplined enough to get through the program. I totally get that. And we absolutely value MBAs, just not to the exclusion of valuable work experience.

MBAs are definitely part of some of the profiles that we work on here (for example, a good percentage of management consultants and product management types that we hire come with MBAs). But I rarely think of a good recruiter searching on a specific skill-set and ruling out people who have it just because they don't have MBAs (because of the equivalent work experience thing). Many MBAs do end up with backgrounds that we typically recruit so the MBA alumni associations are a good channel for us...but the MBA itself is rarely an absolute requirement. We really look at the work experience first.

Having said that, a strong MBA on your resume does help differentiate you from others (and gives you access to some of the career services like the MBA Alumni job sites that corporations use to post jobs). Part of it is the "wow factor". So this is what you should think about if you are considering an online degree. To gain specific skills, you could get them through practical experience, so that is an option. But are you also going for the "wow" and does the program you are thinking of provide it? You have to make your own decision on which programs are "wow-worthy". An online degree from a solid program may provide the resume impact you are looking for.

Comments (21)

  1. Devin Reams says:

    Interesting thoughts, I always get mixed responses when asking employers about the value of the MBA…

    Not sure if you’re aware but Tom Peter’s has constantly denounced the nation’s MBA programs and theres an interesting read (partially through) entitled Managers Not MBAs that analyzes the failure of the program (wrong people, wrong time, etc.).

  2. Russ Moon says:

    I’m going to chime in on this given I’m 10 months from completing my MBA.

    First two courses lectures, next 8 online. Our online courses are far more difficult.

    Higher workloads, monitored activity (lectures,discussion threads, responses to other students, homework) you can’t get behind unless you are prepared to suffer the academic consequences. In a lecture situation the professor doesn’t really know if I did the reading, or homework unless he/she calls on me. Online, it’s all out in the open, you either spoon feed yourself and perform or you flop in front of 40 other people.

    MBA’s in general, prior to entering an MBA program I thought it wasn’t that big of a deal, proabably a self rationalization as to why I had not chosen to pursue higher education. The MBA unto itself, IMHO, does not make you superhuman. After completing 31.5 credit hours I can honestly say I don’t view business issues the same way after this exposure. It is easier to keep up and make intelligent contributions that drive business value. Education unto itself, won’t make you a millionaire, a good person or a corporate star performer, however it certainly can’t hurt you. It does make a difference.

    There is a great deal of truth, to combining the MBA with some work experience and the value that has. I’m sure the MBA’s coming right out of their undergrad would make their case for immediately extending their knowledge base on the front end of their careers.

    I think the MBA is a differentiator, it allows you to stand in a line that may have been closed to you. When we boil it all down to the fundamental issues, hopefully we would be hiring the intellect and the capacity of that intellect to contribute in the context of a productive work relationship vs merely selecting on the name of the school. Can you learn these things through work experience, sure, it would take considerable job rotation and self-study. My personal choice was to compress that timeframe through a formal program of instruction.

  3. Anon says:

    I have not had good expriences with people with an MBA: They tend to be polite (and verbose) but somewhat useless, they don’t seem to grasp the high-level views.

    The ad on TV with": "I have an MBA" and then the reply : "Then I will have to teach you" corresponds.

    It may be preceptual; more about those who feel the need to advertise (email signature etc.) the fact that they have an MBA than the MBA.

    I am forced to admit the the Engineer+MBA who is now the PM of this project is marginally better than the Engineer who was the PM at the beginning. The just plain Engineer was useless.

  4. Did you hear about the cat that got a degree with honors online?

  5. Heather says:

    Anon-I’ve seen good and bad with and without MBAs

    Scott-smart cat

  6. Pradeep says:

    I think the diversity in access to knowledge & expertise for the MBAs from top schools is a huge competitive advantage.

    While ppl with tons of work experience can but just as skilled if not better (due to their focus) I have personally noticed that sometimes that comes with the prejudices of working in a siloed (focused) industry/space/function. As opposed to the MBA who typically do know ppl in other industries/space/function almost always. A quick conversation with these contacts gives access to new ways of thinking, metrics of decision making and therefore knowledge. I dont see how this can be replicated without having a personal connection to these contacts which is nurtured by the fact that one went to the same school and studied together as opposed to online- where the skills are probably learnt but not ready access to diverse knowledge post-graduation.

    Again there are exceptions to the rule ofcourse!

    Despite the huge financial burden that top MBAs have on the individual I think they are still worth it. utility value in my mind is a function of what you did with the degree. Hence the variance in value perception.

  7. Steve Shu says:

    FWIW – I think an MBA can demonstrate it’s worth in many dimensions. Like any investment though, whether it is worth something depends on what other cards one holds. For me, I wanted to spend two years to concentrate and focus on learning state-of-the-art business practices and to move away from engineering in the trenches. There were many others at b-school that could care less about the education and wanted to switch careers and go into investment banking or management consulting. Without an MBA, their career switch would have been more difficult.

    On the other hand, I know numerous successful people on the business side as well that have not pursued MBAs. Upon deeper investigation, I have found that many of these people might do fine to pass on the MBA as a whole but that they might benefit by pursuing (in some cases) specific coursework in an area or two where they are not comfortable and where training is an actual, specialized skill (e.g., finance, accounting, operations).

    In any case, there are probably many ways to approach the problem. I will say, however, that an MBA is no substitute for real work experience esp. if one plans to be a practitioner in the commercial sector.

  8. Heather says:

    No matter what judgement anyone makes about the usefulness of MBAs (yes or no) there will be exceptions. Getting an MBA is a huge investment of money and time. So I totally understand why people put so much thought and effort into making the decision. As a recrutier, I pretty much look at the whole package the person offers….their collection of talents, competencies and experiences. Doens’t matter so much to me how they got there as long as they are good.

  9. Ray Schraff says:

    What is your opinion of the University of Phoenix online programs ?


  10. Heather says:

    Ray-I don’t want to comment directly on any specific programs…I could see that getting really messy. I would rather people make their own decisions on what is a valuable use of their time and money. I generally spend my time working to actively attract people via the alumni orgs of the top 20-30 MBA programs. Also, my other efforts to generate candidates via other channels (company alumni, other outreach) certainly produces folks that have gone to other schools and that is good. I would never tell anyone not to go to a school because it wasn’t a top 30 institution (we hire people that went to programs outside of the top 30 all the time as well as people without MBAs, like me). So I guess what I am saying is that it is up to the individual to decide whether the school is going to have the resume impact that they want.

  11. Michael says:

    Hi Heather and everyone else!

    This is the first time I am on this blog and I find it very interesting. This blog is especially interesting to me because currently I am working in Canada and will premantely move to California in the summer looking for work. I find the reading very interesting and entertaining. Keep up the good work Heather.

    Now I would like to make my first comment on this blog. Do I think MBA is worth it? I am fortunate enough to work for a fortunate 500 company and have many opportunities to work with MBA. Solely based on my experience, I find most people with MBA lack the execution part of the business. Is great to have a few MBA in a small group of people but if the group is solely composed of MBA you will find nothing gets done. There will be a lot of ideas going around with nothing being done. To be honestly I believe execution is more important than strategy. It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to come out with ways to improve revenue or profit margin. The hardest part is to get everyone else in the company to believe in your ideas and execute it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Ross comments on the value of an MBA

  13. Thomas says:

    I just wanted to let you know it seems there is a new official website about the top 9 MBA’s in Canada.

  14. rjjj says:

    what type of jobs can you get with a MBA?

  15. Cynthia says:

    I am considering changing from the University of Oklahoma to The Grand Canyon University online to finish my business Bachelor Degree and MBA? Will this change hurt my salary chances out there?

  16. HeatherLeigh says:

    Cynthia – I do think that people will look differently at the online degree versus the degree from University of Oklahoma. Whether or not that means a difference in salary would really depend on the company, how important the degree is to them in the first place and the individual hiring manager’s opinion of online degrees.

    I do see more online degree offerings out there but I do not yet believe that the hiring marketplace would put them on par with an in-person degree program. That’s just my opinion though. Others may feel differently.

  17. de Sorbon says:

    I do think that the French are ahead of the curve as they officilaized in 2002 the VAE (Validation des Acquis de l’experience) which allows to grand part or total regulate degree on work experience. Now many are processing the VAE in English such as paris X and Strasbourg II I think that it is particulkarly warranted for MBA you may have a look at our VAE degrees at


  18. Jason says:

    Considering the MSN article link is dead and Microsoft is anything but a "Truth-Teller" (a stretch but an employee reps the organization) I find this blog post amusing. If MS is recruiting from top MBA programs, it doesn’t seem to show in their offerings.

    That being said I have to agree with Ms. Hamilton. I found in my own experiences that degrees from online schools, unless derived from a well known traditional campus, are worthless. In Michigan it is well known that schools such as University of Phoenix (both their online and brick campuses) are degree mills that the automotive companies used to get their employees into certain positions quickly. I’ve seen and experienced this first hand. The reason it was never questioned is because most of the students I worked with had their tuition paid for by their employer and a teamwork paradigm that made classes much easier to pass. No one rocks the boat when the ride is easy.

    I have friends right now who are being laid off as I write this who are constantly hounded by University of Phoenix telemarketing reps about returning to school. That isn’t the behavior of a top rated school. That’s quotas.

  19. HeatherLeigh says:

    I guess some people may get something out of your comment but I found the personal attack a little distracting.  The link is dead because the article is from 2005. Geez.

  20. Jason says:

    Who am I attacking? You? Your company’s public record stands as proof of my comment. I don’t consider that an attack, it’s an observation. And I agreed with your points.

    When you lose your job, your home, your health insurance, when your stock options are worthless and your 401k sinks you might understand where I’m coming from. I see thousands of people throwing money at an education that brings them nothing but debt with no job possibilities and I think it’s wrong. I don’t believe schools like University of Phoenix deserve accreditation.


    p.s. as far as the dead link goes, yes it’s light years away in web time but it’s a relevant piece of information (hence the current posts) and should be archived appropriately. Certainly a top notch MS manger would know this…? (one good attack deserves another 🙂

  21. HeatherLeigh says:

    I don’t disagree with you about University of Phoenix. I just think that you seem very angry and I don’t appreciate the implication that since I work for Microsoft, I don’t tell the truth. Sounds like you are a disgruntled former employee. This is really the wrong place to air your issues and I’m probably not the right person to take it up with. And I did not attack you in any way. So the little smiley face does not lessen your implication that I am not a top notch manager.

    I will delete your next comment because anonymous personal attacks are cowardly (oops, sorry for the truth-telling) and there’s no reason why I should have to be treated like that by someone who is hiding behind their anonymity. 🙂

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