Going the Distance: Assessing the Merit of a Candidate’s Distance Learning Graduate Degree


Mentioning distance education in a room full of recruiters or hiring managers is likely to spark a passionate debate on the merit of those degrees and the qualifications of candidates who possess them. Like it or not, however, we are becoming an increasingly global, and mobile, society. Most executives maintain rigorous travel schedules, with some on the road up to five days a week. Universities have responded accordingly, with institutions such as Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, MIT, The University of North Carolina (including its well-known business school), and Henley Business School in the UK offering their highly sought after graduate programs through distance learning for on-the-go professionals. These programs are identical to the campus-based programs, but are offered to students through a number of distance learning methods. These include lectures through live stream and videoconference, or even asynchronous learning in which students can access course material on their own schedule, coming together with classmates later for projects or discussions surrounding the material. In 2009, the Financial Times began evaluating and ranking the top 100 distance MBA programs alongside its annual ranking of global brick and mortar business programs. With distance learning on the rise, here are some tips for evaluating the strength of those degrees and the candidates who hold them:

Find out if the institution is accredited. This is the single most important component when assessing the value of a distance learning degree. Simple internet research will reveal if the school is accredited, and if it is, which governing body accredited the university. Business schools, which now offer many distance MBA options, should be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The AACSB provides a comprehensive list on its website of every institution it accredits worldwide. The European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and The Association of MBAs (AMBA) are also acceptable accreditations, particularly when assessing schools outside the US. 

Investigate the program’s entry requirements. Entry requirements for distance learning graduate programs run the gamut from minimal to demanding, but have become increasingly stringent over time. This is particularly true for institutions that have strong reputations to maintain and therefore strive to turn out quality students. It is not uncommon for graduate schools to hold distance learning applicants to the same high standards they require of residential applicants. This often includes a minimum GPA and GRE/GMAT threshold, letters of recommendation, and specific professional experience relevant to the program. Visit the website of the program in question to learn more about what the school requires of its applicants.

Learn whether or not the program offers an on-campus learning component. Many institutions are combatting skepticism about the value of distance education by offering condensed, intensive campus sessions for distance learning students. Such programs are often referred to as hybrid or blended. On- campus sessions run anywhere from two to five days (again, with the busy professional in mind), and allow students the opportunity to come together in a classroom setting and work face to face with their professors. This fosters collaboration, communication, and also offers students the ability to forge meaningful professional connections. Candidates’ description of their on-campus learning experience and the value it added to their education should give you some strong insight into the rigor of the program and how much effort was put forth in attaining that degree.

Ask the candidate why they chose the program. Graduate school is a serious investment of both money and time, and the choice about where to make that investment is very personal. Candidates should be able to articulate their reasoning behind selecting a particular school, and “convenience” is not an adequate answer. Perhaps the program curriculum stood out to the candidate for its ability to bridge important developmental gaps. Some distance education programs offer campus learning sessions abroad, and it could be that the candidate wanted to expand his or her global view. Another candidate may have been focused on a well-regarded program thousands of miles from home, and distance learning allowed the candidate to pursue the degree without leaving his or her job or upheaving his or her family. There are many, many reasons for choosing a distance learning degree. The point is that candidates should able to convey solid reasoning and strong enthusiasm for their choice of institution and degree program.

Distance education has come a long way since the concept initially boomed in the early 2000s. While there are still programs that lack accreditation or require minimal commitment, they are becoming the minority, as respected brick and mortar institutions step up to the challenge of serving a diverse and mobile professional population.

1 Comment

January 22, 2013 AT 3:30 PM CST

Lucian Gray wrote:

Really well balanced information presented here. Concise and helpful insight to the entire issue, from all three sides of the equation. First time I have seen an article address this head on and not get caught up in the hype and stereotype. Thanks!

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