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There’s A Major New Player In The Online MBA Game

·20 min read

There’s a new Midwestern player in the OMBA game: Ohio State Fisher

There’s a new player in the online MBA game in the United States — and though its initial launch is small, it has the potential to become a very big deal in a very short time.

The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business announced today (September 9) the creation of a new online MBA component to its online Working Professional MBA. With a first cohort planned for spring 2022, the school is emphasizing the “mirror image” quality of the new program: a “personalized, experiential and transformational” opportunity to pursue an online MBA through a program that was ranked 10th in the country — and No. 5 among public universities and No. 1 in Ohio — by U.S. News & World Report.

In the fast-moving online arena, Fisher is the third prominent business school to unveil an online MBA option in little more than a month. In early August, UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business disclosed that it would add a “Flex MBA” option to its evening and weekend MBA program for professionals. Haas will take in its first online cohort in July of 2022. Less than three weeks later on Aug. 23, the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business announced a merger of its part-time MBA programs with its existing online MBA option that already boasts an enrollment of more than 400 students. Tippie intends to put every single graduate business course in its catalog online.


Fisher College of Business Dean Anil K. Makhija

“I’m quite excited,” Anil Makhija, dean of the Fisher College of Business, tells Poets&Quants in an exclusive interview about the launch. “I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that we will be successful.”

Dean Makhija says the idea to take Ohio State’s Working Professional MBA online was born of a desire to expand a popular program beyond the confines of the school’s campus in Columbus, Ohio — to meet the strong and demonstrated demand for what the WPMBA offers, including top faculty and industry experts, a rigorous curriculum, and a wide range of electives and specializations.

“We have a highly successful Working Professional MBA program — ranked in the top 10 by U.S. News, Stanfords of the world included,” Makhija says. “So we figured that that was a good product to make available elsewhere, this being on-ground, in-person, residential was really limited to driving distance within Columbus. So our first outreach was naturally to the other large city in Ohio, which is Cleveland. But of course, Cleveland is more than two-and-a-half hours’ drive.


“So what we decided is to offer the weekend option and in fact started to provide buses — and lo and behold, now it wasn’t just Cleveland, it was also Cincinnati and the routes for these buses. And we landed up attracting fairly quickly a whole class of about 50 students coming in from elsewhere. So great product, ranked so highly, and now we could see a demand elsewhere.”

This was in spring 2020. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic began.

“Unfortunately soon after we had created this first class of 50 students coming in, Covid hit,” Makhija says. “And now we couldn’t put the students in the buses anymore. And so we immediately started thinking what to do, and we started offering some classes online as were available. And that of course led us to think more deeply about an online option.”


Indiana University’s Kelley Online Direct program is not only king of the online MBA space in the U.S. Midwest; it’s also one of the best programs in the country, regardless of format. That’s why Poets&Quants named Kelley Direct our Program of the Year in early 2021. Another major Midwestern player, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, joined the part-time OMBA game a couple of years ago and this summer graduated its first class. Both programs belong to schools with top-25 full-time MBAs.

So it’s a crowded field. But Fisher’s dean is confident in success.

“I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that we will be successful and I want to tell you why,” Makhija says. “If you look at Michigan, that’s what a $125,000 price tag. IU is pretty high. Now IU’s been in this business a fairly long time. But you see, we come at it from behind, but we have a program that is ranked in the top 10 among all, ranked in the top five publics, and best in Ohio. And the reason we are able to do that is that the existing program has a level of intimacy and interactivity that is generally uncommon to online type programs. And in fact, what we are going to do is we’re going to replicate that in terms of the online program we are creating.

“We’ve created a new modality that draws directly from our existing WPMBA program, one that is highly ranked and offers students unparalleled intimacy and interactivity. It’s the latest step in our efforts to continuously innovate to meet the needs of business and its leaders.

“We’re excited by the momentum this new option has generated as we explore launching other online programs, such as a new supply chain management program, and collaborating across the university on convergent research and thought leadership initiatives, including FinTech. As a college, we remain committed to finding new and creative ways to meet the needs of a dynamic marketplace and workforce.”


The new offering allows students to enroll in the program entirely on campus, online, or a mix of both. Students will pay the same price as their in-person colleagues: around $75,ooo, comparable to Indiana Kelley’s price tag for Kelley Direct.

WPMBA recruitment is currently underway, with the program accepting applications for spring and autumn 2022. Click here for more information.

“This is a new opportunity to meet our students where they are. The Working Professional MBA is already ranked among the nation’s best at meeting the needs of our working students,” says W. Randy Smith, Ohio State’s vice provost for academic programs. “The new online opportunities will continue to help Ohio State meet the workforce demands in Ohio and beyond.”

“The Ohio State University and Fisher College of Business are excited to be bringing this offering to our students,” says Steve DeNunzio, academic director of the Online WPMBA. “We look forward to providing the same program excellence, with added flexibility and convenience.”

See the next page for a Q&A with Ohio State Fisher’s leadership team, edited for length and clarity.

Fisher College Interior


Jay Wellman, faculty director of the working professional MBA program and a faculty member in the Fisher College finance department

Arvind Chandrashekaran (AC), associate dean for graduate programs and executive education, and a professor of operations

Steve Denunzio, senior lecturer at the Fisher College, leading the online MBA initiative

Anil Makhija, Fisher College dean

Paul North, executive director, Fisher College of Business Graduate Programs Office


Did coronavirus accelerate or slow the planning for this program?

AC: I think yes, in that it did help us in terms of our planning. It definitely helped us in terms of preparation. To do something online, it’s not just like a faculty coming into Zoom and like teaching some things to their offices. Right. So we’ve got to think about technology, space. We’ve got to think about how do we captivate the students that are actually learning all the time. Right?

So we, again, Fisher invested in a lot of technology related aspects over the COVID-19 period, not just like classrooms are now well equipped to both in-person as well as online, but more importantly, like we’ve paid a couple of rooms that dedicated online studios that allows our faculty to actually like reach to our larger group of students and have an interactive discussion there.

So clearly coronavirus did help us in the preparation standpoint. Okay.

Jay Wellman: Yeah. I would agree. It was certainly something that we had to turn pretty much on a dime when it hit in March of 2020. We had really great buy-in from our technical staff, as well as the faculty to one in the short term for spring 2020 to be able to deliver our content online, so many programs had to. But also as AC was mentioning to use this as an opportunity to say, okay, well then how can we sort of build this product out? Not only as an added degree of flexibility for our local students who may have business travel, who may have family events in the evening, or just may have had a long day at the office and would like to connect remotely rather than coming to the classroom.

But of course, also for this group of students, this cohort that we have in the state of Ohio that was now unable to come on the bus. So having been able to make those steps. So this past year, well now that’s kind of led us to where we are at this point. We’re now, you know, we feel confident that, you know, we can be ready to open this up to a broader audience.

Taking something bad and turning something good out of it. That’s sort of what the best schools do, isn’t it?

Arvind Chandrashekaran

Anil Makhija: I don’t think the timing could have been ever so opportune. I mean, look at, I’m just repeating a little bit of what my friends of colleagues have said here, look at all the things coming together, we had a great product and we could see demand for it, but we couldn’t put them in buses anymore. Right. So, so we had to do something about that second because of the coronavirus, our faculty suddenly got engaged in online teaching. And in fact, in fact, organically spontaneously developed what is called a teaching committee.

To share best practices on online. And in fact, that committee are so successful that we have now turned it into a standing committee of the college.

Okay. So if you need this time to look at the patterns of administration, they allow for certain committees to be like permanently there, standing committees, the teaching committee added there. And then we just happened to be so lucky that prior to the pandemic properly hitting, we were feeling uneasy already with the word about Corona and so forth that we had already, as AC just mentioned invested very heavily in IT.

And in terms of retrofitting classrooms and so on and so forth. So that happened and our IT department just kind of did a bang up job and finally we had the help of ODEE, which is Office of Distance Education and E-learning, which is the university arm on this.

And they had done distance programs, for example, for nursing and for social work, large graduate programs. So we had their help as well. I mean, so it’s, like I said, it couldn’t be more opportune than having the technology side have all of these different dimensions help us.

Was the faculty prepared? How many in the faculty had experience with online instruction prior to Covid?

Anil Makhija: Prior to COVID, there was online teaching. I can give you some strong examples, but it was not widespread.

So for example, our executive MBA program meets only three days a month, the rest is online. Our masters of business, operational excellence, similarly meets periodically for a week or so, rest online. We had already taken the core classes in our undergraduate. There are like 13 specializations and have, except for the handful, the rest were online. So we had some learning, but frankly it was not widespread.

Paul could probably speak to how many of the courses in our graduate programs were online. We did have a specialized master’s in business, which was 75% online and 25% in person. So yes, here and there, but Corona made the currency everywhere.

Paul North: I was just going to jump in and talk about SMBA, which is a Specialized Masters of Business Analytics monk, but that has been around for about three and a half, four years or so.

And in that program faculty teach online, like Dean Makhija was saying, it’s 75% online 25% in person, but now we’ve kind of taken a new way of looking at that as well and offering all the students an opportunity to do the program remotely if they want to do that.

So in terms of expertise within the College of Business, we’ve had that we’ve been doing it in the bus a few years or so this is kind of an extension of what we’re doing. Naturally online is the way to go right now. In our WP MBA program, being ranked so high in the United States, we had a lot of people knocking on our door, asking us for an online program.

Our recruiters kind of told us about that demand that we’ve been hearing about. And naturally it became one of those conversations that once COVID-19. hit, we kind of looked at it really seriously and moved ahead. And even prior to COVID-19, this was already in the books.

Anil Makhija: A strategic plan.

Paul North: It a strategic plan to bring programs online. And they’re looking at other programs as well. We’ll definitely kind of give you a heads up when that comes online as well.

This is going to lead to a full-time online MBA somewhere down the road?

AC: Not really full-time, but right now we have a proposal that’s going on for a online supply chain masters program.

So being in Columbus, Ohio, being in the Midwest and having top rank faculty, both in supply chain and operations, we are actually pursuing an online masters program because it is more demand both locally, as well as within Ohio and outside Ohio for supply chain program. So we have a proposal that is going on and our expectation is that that program will be up and running by 2023 summer.

Dean, you brought up a really interesting point, which is that this is you entering a space that some of your neighbors have been in for a while. How do you feel about your position as you venture into this space?

Anil Makhija: I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that we will be successful and I want to tell you why. If you look at Michigan, that’s what defines you called correctly $125,000 price tag. IU is pretty high. Now IU’s been in this business a fairly long time. But you see, we come at it from behind, but we have a program that is ranked in the top 10 among all, ranked in the top five publics, and best in Ohio. And the reason we are able to do that is that the existing program has a level of intimacy and interactivity that is generally uncommon to online type programs. And in fact, what we are going to do is we’re going to replicate that in terms of the online program we are creating.

So, in some sense, think of it this way: the online program is going to be a mirror image that the added flexibility of being online. So in terms of the electives that are available, in terms of when the core is available, so we have a successful product that you’re going to capture in the online space. So for example, our cores are not typically delivered in fall and in spring. Well for the online is going to offer core in fall and in spring, which means that students actually will have even the ability to choose a format. Because some of them they can actually take in-person and some they can take online. Now predominantly, if you sign up online that’s what we assure you. But we will make available, to the extent possible, the in-person as well.

So you see the strength by having the two modalities. And the electives are typically for us is typically in summer, we’re able to continue that. So you will typically in our Working Professional MBA we have something like 65 electives that are available, across the board. One, it’s going to be a pretty large number, like 42 or something like that on the online. Okay. So if you see how the two compliment each other and provide intimacy, interactivity, and at the same time choice.

I don’t think our competitors to have any of that kind of special, both options.

Jay Wellman: Yeah. I just to sort add onto that is that the stock and trade of the program traditionally has been the solid in-person component that we’ve had and we certainly don’t want to get away from that, as Anil said, we want to sort of take what we’ve learned from that and how it’s got us into the rankings that we’ve gotten, to transfer that to the online space.

So that not only is it an excellent program for people who are going to be connecting to the program entirely remotely, but also be an added feature to this core group of students that we have here in the Columbus area, adding extra flexibility to the program that they already appreciate and rank very highly. So the fact that we’re, our goal here is to be able to sort of merge those two experiences together and allow people to really mix and match as they need to, right to one semester, we have our local student who is unable to meet in our weeknight classes or perhaps on weekend classes, but can do so remotely. Great.

If we have somebody who’s a little bit outside the area who wants to primarily take online courses, but perhaps can come down for a Saturday course and meet in person, then those options will be there as well. For people who are far enough outside the area. Well then, you know, then the fully online option then will be available to them with a full cohort of courses as well.

So we’re hoping to replicate the positives that we’ve had in the program all along, but allow us to do that by expanding it geographically, right. To allow it, to give us greater reach on what we already think is a pretty solid experience.

And had a price competitive with your peers?

Steve Denunzio

Anil Makhija: I think so. And by the way, the same price for the in-person and the online — around $75k, right?

AC: Yeah. Or 80 thousand.

So think about this math, the way we think about this program as Anil rightly mentioned, is that flexibility, right? If we think about that last students, we actually demand more flexibility, be again, taking classes online, being, coming to Fisher, being against switching one semester online, one semester to be in person.

So this option of thinking about WP as one umbrella, and then having two modalities, as in-person as well as, we’ll give that flexibility to our students. So that’s the way I think that’s the secret sauce, in my opinion, which again not other programs really has from my understanding.

Anil Makhija: And with this retaining the intimacy. So incidentally, the sizes of our classes in the online option are going to be no different from the in-person.

Even though there is a lot of temptation to pack online with more and more students. But our target is the core classes in the in-person are typically like 60, plus or minus, and we are going to try to retain that same for the online as well. Typically, electives have what about 30? We are going to try to retain that same for the online as well.

So we are trying to get all the good things that we about interaction, flexibility and intimacy that we have in our existing online, I mean, in person program and transported into the online.

This is very much a college-wide effort, isn’t it?

Steve Denunzio: As a senior lecturer, I do a lot of teaching and the cut to COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity. Every classroom became a living lab in terms of what was going to work online, what wasn’t, a lot of us strove to be more than just a talking head on Zoom. And Anil had mentioned that the teaching excellence committee and Jay as well as I, we were both on that committee and that was a great opportunity for, depended on the week, but between 15 and 30 of us to kind of just share the good, bad, the ugly about what was going on in the classroom and what was working and what wasn’t, and, sharing best practices and, and tools.

And I think the great thing is as we approach this effort we can bring all that together into a playbook and really provide some best in class. Online learning I think I would add that to the bullet points of how we’re going to differentiate our program from other programs is this isn’t you, you jump on it.

We don’t intend it to be this way that you jump on at three o’clock in the morning, you hit the button and you just watched a recorded video. It’s going to be so much more than that and we’re really looking forward to seeing what we can do here.

Anil Makhija: So that’s the academic director, and we also have the graduate programs’ office. Paul is the executive director of that program. So there is a lot of feeding and care that goes with it. Paul, you want to add to that?

Paul North: Yeah and typically, as you know, online programs that are released these days have an external vendor to work with those programs. We have our own internal university help out your, that we’re kind of pushing this program out, but, and the fun piece of it is a lot of the elements that are going to be part of the online MBA in any other online program that we released will still reside at the Fisher college of business.

So we’ll still do our recruiting and student services and application stuff and I would love that. So, the control that we have over the product is going to be really good, and that will give us an opportunity to even change things on the fly, if you see a need for that.

Anil Makhija: And having Jay Wellman who is the academic director of the existing in-person and looking professional MBA program, so there is a lot of back and forth between, because this is beneficial to both programs.

Then we have the associate dean for graduate programs, who’s thinking holistically about what does it mean about our next online supply chain management program.

There’s also involvement with the career management office. We talked about the IT office and how we were lucky to have put in IT. There’s the campus wide ODEE — Office of Distance Education and E-learning. And not to forget mentioning the academic departments, because as I mentioned, there are going to be like 42 or something like that electives available to the students as well.


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