When Audrey McLaughlin was looking into online MBA programs, the Cleveland, Ohio, native cared a lot about overall prestige and program rankings. But she also paid attention to something more granular: the instructors.
"I wanted the same faculty as the residential program," says McLaughlin, who ended up enrolling in Indiana University's online MBA program in 2013. "I wanted access to the same classes that I could have in person."
Vetting online MBA faculty is key, experts say, since instructors not only shape a student's academic experience, but can also serve as helpful connections down the road. As a result, they suggest students follow in McLaughlin's footsteps and research instructors, as well as the overall structure of a program's faculty.
"There are all kinds of models out there, and these are things that students should be aware of," says David Sylvia, director of academic affairs for graduate programs at Pennsylvania State UniversityWorld Campus.
One marker of a reputable online MBA program is shared faculty with the residential division, says Phil Powell, faculty chair of the online business programs at Indiana University. If an online MBA program outsources instruction, it's a sign that school officials aren't prioritizing the educational experience as they should, he says.
"Its a very quick and dirty way to differentiate whether the online program is seen as a strategic asset for the school or whether it's just a quick way to make a buck," says Powell, whose program, ranked No. 1 among online graduate business programs, uses the same faculty as the on-campus program. "All schools see their residential MBA programs as a strategic asset."
McLaughlin, who now works in North Carolina as a business support consultant, says online students benefit from instructors who teach the same courses in a classroom setting.
They "have a better understanding of the students that way and what they need," says McLaughlin, who spent time reading about faculty on her program's website. "And I think that it adds more caliber to the program."
Prospective online MBA students would also be wise to look into whether they will be working primarily with full-time, tenured faculty or part-time instructors, says Stacey Whitecotton, senior associate dean of graduate programs at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. At her institution, she says, there is an emphasis on hiring full-time professors with research experience.
"Part-time faculty, by definition, really only have to teach for the university. So they might be great teachers, but they dont have the research expectations," she says. "Students are looking for knowledge they can apply at work. They want faculty who understand what is happening in the business world, but they also have to have faculty who are on the cutting edge of the field and generating new knowledge. It's important to expose students to both."
However, some school officials, particularly in the for-profit sector, argue that even programs with large numbers of part-time faculty can provide a solid academic experience.