William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business launched the first of its online graduate business programs in the fall of 2015 with an inaugural cohort of 49 online MBA students.
Not only did the Mason School double its initial enrollment target, it recruited a group of demographically and professionally diverse students: 33 percent of the cohort were female, 25 percent of the students were minorities, 27 percent were active duty or veteran service members, 8 percent were international, and nearly 40 percent were geographically based outside of Virginia.
The experience of these initial online MBA students helped the Mason School lay the foundation of what was to become U.S. News & World Report’s #28 best online MBA program in the country and opened up opportunities for the school to develop new online degree offerings.
“When the Mason School sought to include online degree offerings in our portfolio of graduate-level programs, we did so with intent and thoughtfulness,” said Dean Larry Pulley. “We identified market demand in the online business education space, sought out critical feedback from executives on the skills and knowledge they wanted their employees to possess, and unified those needs in an innovative digital learning environment.”
On the heels of the online MBA program’s success, the W&M Business School Foundation Board engaged with a consulting firm in 2018 to design a growth plan for the next five years to expand the portfolio of online graduate degrees and certificates that build on the strengths of the Mason School and serve a need in the market. And with the generous $10 million donation by Jane P. Batten, LHD ’19, HON ‘17 and the launch of an online Master of Science in Business Analytics degree program, that process showed no sign of slowing down.
“Though we weren’t the first university to offer online graduate education opportunities for business professionals, our success has been, and will continue to be, based on our ability to develop cutting edge courses of study taught by the Mason School’s world-class faculty, and then recruiting the brightest talent to our programs,” said Paul Saville, BBA ‘77, President and CEO NVR, Inc. and Chair of the William & Mary Business School Foundation Board of Trustees.
An executive hiring committee concluded its search for the Center for Online Learning’s first Associate Dean and Executive Director in the spring of 2020 naming Pam Suzadail to the position. Progress on creating new online programs continued with the development and launch of the five-course online Foundations in Business Analytics Certificate and online Master’s in Marketing degree program. The Center is also finalizing the curriculum for a highly-anticipated online Master’s in Finance degree program set to launch in 2021.
Importance of student-faculty centered engagement
At its onset, the online MBA program began with the “Dream Team” of 12 Mason School faculty members. Since then, instruction has grown to include 37% of the school’s full-time and adjunct professors.
All online instructors benefit from a robust faculty development program the Center created with offerings ranging from topics such as instructional design to improving student engagement in an online setting.
The Center also maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio which benefits faculty as well as students. Mason School online classes average 23 students and each program is designed around group work that creates small learning communities and strong connections between students and the faculty members. It’s likely why the student retention rate for the online MBA program cohorts is in the mid-80’s to high 90’s— well above the national average, and why 97 percent of students would recommend the program to a colleague or friend.
“[I didn’t know] what to expect. Would we feel distant from our students? Would we be able to build the same kind of rapport that we pride ourselves on building face-to-face with students? Would the learning experience be equally strong for the students?” said Dr. Deborah Hewitt Clinical Associate Professor of Economics & Finance. “In every case the actual experience exceeded whatever expectations I had by a wide margin and I think I can speak for the rest of the faculty in that regard as well.”
Hewitt along with her colleague James Olver, Associate Professor of Marketing, are among the group of instructors who have taught in the Mason School’s online environment since it began. They credit the Center’s incorporation of unique program attributes like the Residency Weekend as further ways students and faculty are able to develop strong relationships among, and with, each other.
“One of the biggest surprises for me was how quickly the classes grow together as a community,” said Olver. “I was impressed with how quickly they began sharing with each other and building each other up. I was blown away at the first Residency Weekend, when I saw bunches of folks who had never met face-to-face greeting each other with hugs, like they’d been friends for years.”
Formation of the Foundation Board Online Advisory Committee
As one of the largest strategic initiatives in Mason school, the W&M Business School Foundation Board supported the development of the online initiative since the early planning stages with private funding and strategic planning. With Center’s projected growth, the Board recently created an Online Advisory Committee to continue to guide, support, and sustain the Mason School’s nationally recognized online program.
“Our goal is to keep the momentum going for continued growth and success of the online portfolio of programs at the Mason School,” said Dane Brooksher, BBA ’61, retired Chairman and CEO, Prologis and Chair of the Mason School Online Advisory Committee. “The last five years have proven that with the right leadership and vision, we can meet the demands we’re seeing in the market by professionals and employers alike.”
From the initial cohort of 49 students in the online MBA, the Mason School now has 450 students earning their degrees fully online. Cumulatively across the portfolio of programs, the Center has offered 352 sections of online classes and ten Residency Weekends.
Students have come from 40 different states in the U.S. and represent 39 countries internationally.
Approximately 218 veteran and active-duty service members representing every armed service have enrolled as students in an online program.
The total number of online alumni has grown to approximately 350 professionals representing nearly every industry in business.
The future of online at the Mason School
The Center will foster future growth by continuing to leverage the school’s entrepreneurial mindset to develop innovative programs, deliver on William & Mary’s 325+ years of history of excellence, and apply best practices in learning design and online teaching to emulate the human-centric engagement the Mason School is known for all while helping students to set the foundation of what will become their future career as a principled professional in business.
“William & Mary MBA online students are highly motivated, engaging, and determined individuals. They really must demonstrate those qualities to be successful in the program—and they do,” said Hewitt. “It seems to be certain that the online modality will remain a crucial part of any school’s offerings for years to come. Our expansion needs to be thoughtful and well-planned to meet both market demands and our ability to supply world class programs.”