BEI Survey: (Self)-Report Card: Part-Time MBA Programs Give Themselves a B+ in Quality

This month we conclude our series on innovation in part-time MBA programs based on our most recent survey with a look at how program administrators think about quality (look out for our next research series in early spring 2014). It’s clear from our previous installments that a large majority of respondents feel that continuous innovation is a central part of what it means to offer a high quality graduate program. So how are programs doing in the long march toward quality? We asked respondents to give their part-time MBA programs an overall grade in terms of its quality. The results were interesting:

Program Quality Figure 1

Just over one-third of the respondents graded their program quality in the “A” range, whereas over half (55 percent) graded their programs in the “B” range. Three respondents provided a grade in the “C” range. Given the average report card of a B+, these results indicate that there is certainly room for innovation and improvement in terms of overall program quality. This takeaway is consistent with our previous reports on innovation and suggests that program administrators are keenly aware of their programs’ shortcomings, yet are less able to drive the changes necessary to move from a B to an A.

Given limited resources—time and money, to be specific—where should improvement-focused administrators spend their time with respect to quality? To answer that question, we first have to take a step back to define the nature of program quality and then examine whether some aspects of quality might represent a better return on investment than others.

Program Quality Defined

Rubin and Morgeson (2013) recently conducted a study to systematically define what constitutes MBA quality and developed a model that could be used to evaluate and improve quality. Through their work, a total of nine quality meta-dimensions were found, which were further explained by 24 more specific quality dimensions. Below is a synopsis of the program quality model:

  1. Curriculum: a) content b) delivery, c) program structure
  2. Faculty: a) qualifications, b) research, c) teaching and d) overall quality
  3. Placement: a) alumni network, b) career services and c) corporate/community relations
  4. Reputation:  a) perceptions of program quality
  5. Student learning and outcomes: a) personal competency development, b) student career consequences, c) economic outcomes and d) learning outcomes
  6. Institutional resources: a) facilities, b) financial resources, c) investment in faculty, d) tuition and fees and e) student support services.
  7. Program/institution climate:  a) diversity and b) educational environment
  8. Program student composition: a) the overall makeup and quality of students
  9. Strategic focus: a) the quality of the articulated institutional mission and strategic plan

In their work validating the model, Rubin and Morgeson collected data from subject matter experts as well as MBA program administrators. Among the findings was that although all of the quality factors were deemed important, some were seen as substantially more important than others, including curriculum, student learning and teaching. In this regard, we wondered how our sample composed of exclusively part-time MBA program administrators would rate the overall importance of the quality dimensions. In particular, we asked them to rate each quality dimension on a scale from 1 (not at all important for program quality) to 100 (essential for program quality). Here are the results:

Program Quality Figure 2

In line with Rubin and Morgeson, our sample of part-time MBA program administrators believed that all aspects of the quality model are important to overall program quality, as shown by most ratings exceeding 70 on the 100-point scale. Yet as can clearly be seen in Figure 2, some areas were seen as significantly more or less important:

  • Highest importance ratings: curriculum content, faculty teaching and quality, and student learning.
  • Lowest importance ratings: diversity climate, faculty research and strategic focus

Respondents’ importance ratings take on new meaning, however, when compared to the group of 15 business education subject matter experts’ views of quality (shown in Figure 3 as red hash marks):

  • Part-time MBA program administrators gave a great-deal more weight to student economic outcomes, tuition and fees, and student composition. Perhaps not surprisingly, these are aspects of quality that administrators are often tasked with managing and see every day.
  • Subject matter experts placed substantially more importance on faculty teaching, career services, educational environment and strategic focus.

Program Quality Figure 3

Investing in Quality

What stands out most from these data is the strong agreement that although all aspects of the quality model are important to achieving a quality program, a focus on high quality education through excellent curriculum, strong faculty/teachers and learning is where the greatest impact on overall quality is likely to be derived. Moreover, there are aspects of quality that are clearly not in the direct control of part-time MBA program administrators, such as reputation, economic outcomes and student career consequences. In fact, these aspects are likely correlates or by-products of a high quality program. Thus, investing significant resources in trying to affect such factors is unlikely to be a “winning strategy” for improving a program’s quality.

Interestingly, these are also the factors tracked and weighted most heavily by media rankings where upwards of 50 percent of a school’s standing can be determined by two or three of these factors (e.g., economic outcomes and reputational assessment). Thus, it’s seductive to want to pursue these areas to the exclusion of others as way to shortcut actual quality improvement in pursuit of a ranking.

Our recommendation in light of these data is to play the long game. Reputation and student economic outcomes take time to develop and improve, but are largely out of your control. Instead, funnel resources toward the most critical areas of program quality and be unwavering in the pursuit of improved student learning. At the very least, your students will truly get what they paid for: a first-rate education.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 5 – Program Quality

By Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, DePaul University Driehaus College of Business

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