Do Online MBA Programs Require Residency or Campus Visitation?


Today, almost all reputable online MBA programs require an on-campus immersion or residency as a graduation requirement, sometimes referenced as an “I/R” or “blended” in-person component. Regardless of terminology, an on-campus residency is where students who usually connect with each other through computer screens assemble in-person, typically on campus and sometimes at carefully chosen off-campus venues.

Phil Powell, faculty chair of the online MBA program at Indiana University, explained to the U.S. News & World Report that a required residency component is crucial and has become a universal standard for all nationally-ranked MBA programs and business schools. One of the primary benefits of online MBA residencies is the opportunity to deepen professional networks.

In 2013, Poets & Quants editor Lauren Everett wrote about the ten essential questions potential students should ask before enrolling in an online MBA program, according to his interviews with business school faculty. Of course, accreditation, technology, and graduate outcomes ranked at the top of the list, but Everett also encouraged students to find out about the networking opportunities for online MBA programs. She points out that networking is one of the most significant long-term benefits of an MBA:

Networking supersedes the classroom learning experience in terms of the program’s value 10 to 20 years down the road. The internet changes things a bit. You are generally not going to see your peers face-to-face every day or meet them for beers after a long week of exams. That is why it is imperative to find out just how many opportunities you will have for face-to-face interaction and team-based projects. Ideally, you will have at least one in-person meet-up.

The Princeton Review explains that one vital way online MBA students can maximize their networking potential is through school-sponsored domestic or international trips. Similar to undergraduate study abroad programs, immersive international experiences allow students to bond and connect with their peers, school faculty, and business professionals while also exploring a new city and culture.

Other perks of on-campus and international residencies are students’ ability to enhance their educational experience. Residency requirements take students away from their computers and move them into a face-to-face learning experience with their peers and professors.

What to Expect in an In-Person Residency

On-campus residencies and in-person immersions are as varied as their MBA programs. Typically, students spend several days immersed in various educational and professional activities, such as engaging in seminars, learning from business leaders, and above all, developing personal connections and networking. Some residencies take place over a three-day long weekend, while others are week-long immersions; some even last several weeks, especially those of online executive MBA programs.

Poets & Quants explains that business schools intend for these immersions and residencies to facilitate bonds among students who spend the majority of their educational experience behind computers and communicating digitally. After all, when students spend months interacting through academic software platforms that display their live video images, nurturing the kinds of lifelong friendships many on-campus MBAs develop might seem challenging.

However, the duality of digital tools and on-campus immersions provides an excellent way to connect. Attorney Ana-Laura Diaz, one of the inaugural students to enroll in the University of North Carolina’s online MBA@UNC program, described her experience to Poets & Quants:

I did not have a problem making connections online. With Facebook and text messaging being the new norm, people are used to having their best friend live states away and only seeing them twice a year.

At the end of every quarter, UNC offers immersion weekends. I attended one on technology and innovation in San Francisco, one on emerging markets in San Paulo, Brazil, and one on leadership in Chapel Hill […] When you go to these, you are not meeting people for the first time. It is more like a reunion with friends. Plus, you are learning how to interact professionally online, skills people will need more of in the future.

Another MBA@UNC student, Hansel Rodriguez, told the U.S. News & World Report that he reinforced his network by attending school immersions in New York, San Francisco, and India. “It gives you the opportunity to see your classmates in a social setting, and you get to build those social relationships. I just went to a classmate of mine’s wedding—it shows you the kind of relationships you get to build.”

Some online executive MBA programs require extensive travel combined with far more time in-person than just a couple of long weekends. For example, the global executive MBA program at Duke University intersperses web-enabled assignments with week-long in-person sessions that rotate through Duke’s North Carolina campus and international financial capitals like Shanghai, China, Santiago, Chile, New Delhi, India and Berlin, Germany.

Are Immersions and Residencies Worthwhile?

However beneficial immersions may seem, some controversy exists because practicalities can make travel programs challenging for many students. “Possible drawbacks would probably be logistics and financing,” according to Ashley Kilburn, an MBA coordinator at the University of Tennessee in an article in the U.S. World News & Report. Most students choose online MBA programs so that they can continue working while attending graduate schools. According to Kilburn, this means that students almost always attend immersions and residencies by consuming precious vacation days, and they typically have to pay for travel costs up front as well.

Other school officials disagree, claiming that these networking experiences are well worth the time and costs. “Nobody ever comes back to me and says, ‘I wish I had just taken another marketing class online,’” says Shawnna Pomeroy, director of academic affairs for the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in the same article.

Because schools approach immersions and residencies differently, experts suggest that aspiring MBA candidates would be wise to learn more about whether a particular school’s immersion and residency requirements seem worthwhile according to their professional and personal goals and obligations. Effective strategies include interviewing alumni about the programs as well as learning about the school’s previous itineraries and activities.

To help with that process, this article summarizes required residency and immersion programs at five nationally ranked online MBA programs.

Immersions and Residencies at Top Online Business Schools

Schools Offering On-Campus and Destination Programs

University of North Carolina

MBA@UNC, the online MBA program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, offers quarterly immersions that provide students with the opportunity to travel to the Chapel Hill campus as well as to major national and global business centers. During these immersions, students engage in collaborative learning experiences, such as lectures from influential local business leaders and group work projects. Students also develop personal and professional relationships with local alumni and their peers while taking in the local culture. For example, in 2012, students who traveled to London to study the European debt crisis met with the CEO of Raytheon, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, and other experts.

  • Requirement: At least two
  • Duration: Three days each
  • Locations: On-campus, domestic, global
  • Objectives: Networking with professors and classmates, learning from global business leaders, focusing on career development, developing leadership skills (on-campus only), and experiencing the local culture

Syracuse University

MBA@Syracuse students attend three three-day residencies in the U.S. or abroad. These hands-on experiences are structured like business conferences and feature prominent local speakers who host relevant discussions and interactive panels. Experts have spoken on lessons from their own companies, such as the director of a global eCommerce company who described how his team delivers results by blending big data with a focus on delivering consumers what they need at precise locations. Each conference concentrates on a topic relevant to the business community of the host city, such as stakeholder management in uncertain times, the business of healthcare, or Ireland’s industry-leading innovation. Past residency locations have included Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru, Seoul, South Korea, and New York City; upcoming venues include Florence, Italy, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Atlanta.

  • Requirement: Three
  • Duration: Three days each
  • Locations: On-campus, domestic, global
  • Objectives: Networking with professors and classmates, learning from global business leaders, and experiencing a wide array of people, ideas, and cultures

American University

Students in the MBA program at American University participate in specially designed experience courses called “Business in Capitals.” These immersions offer students the opportunity to expand on the relationships they develop in online classrooms, working closely with classmates and professors in real-world settings. Students also hear from business leaders, collaborate with peers through group assignments, and explore the local culture of the host city. Global and U.S.-based business capitals host immersions, with upcoming destinations slated for Chicago, Madrid, Spain, and Beijing, China. At least one immersion also takes place annually on American University’s Washington, D.C. campus, where students can explore the unique business culture of the nation’s capital while immersing themselves in American University’s community.

  • Requirement: Two
  • Duration: Three to four days each
  • Locations: On-campus, domestic, global
  • Objectives: Expanding on the relationships students develop online, collaborating with classmates and professors on group assignments, learning from global business leaders, and exploring local culture

Schools Offering Only On-Campus Programs

University of Maryland

Maryland requires two two-credit campus-based residencies, each lasting three days. The first, which takes places at the beginning of the program, allows students to build strong working relationships with their cohort peers and the faculty from the outset, setting the stage for academic success and professional growth. The second is held at the end of the program and brings students together for an integrative capstone business simulation experience where they combine everything that they learned throughout the program. The capstone acts as a final project or thesis, before graduation.

  • Requirement: Two
  • Duration: Three days each
  • Locations: College Park, Maryland
  • Objectives: Building strong working relationships with cohort students and professors, and engaging in business simulations

Pepperdine University

During the initial residency weekend at Pepperdine’s campus in Malibu, California, students participate in their first on-campus personal and leadership development workshop. The workshop’s purpose is to establish a student learning community with a shared understanding of learning goals. Students explore the dynamics of interpersonal communication, personal ethics, values, and team development. The workshop also delivers an overview of the MBA curriculum and offers opportunities to meet and interact with the faculty team. The remainder of the weekend involves activities to stimulate collaboration and learning with classmates. Another weekend-long campus workshop takes place during students’ second year.

  • Requirement: Two
  • Duration: Three days each
  • Locations: On-campus, domestic, global
  • Objectives: Setting up a student-learning community, instilling a shared understanding of learning objectives, exploring topics like interpersonal communication, team development, and personal ethics and values, and initiating relationships with faculty

To summarize, immersions and residencies can be a great way to connect with peers, faculty, and professionals. However, they are not for everyone. Prospective students would be wise to assess whether an online MBA program’s immersion and residency requirements seem like a good fit according to their time commitments and financial resources. They are encouraged to reach out to alumni about the career benefits of these programs.

Nevertheless, many argue that the most important long-term benefit of any business school experience comprises the networking that takes place among students, faculty, and alumni. For students with the time and the financial means, the networking and lifelong friendships promoted by these concentrated personal experiences could deliver career advantages throughout those graduates’ professional lives.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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