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Simmons College’s painful choice to move MBA online

In a decision that shocked many of its alumnae, Simmons College has decided to shutter its brick-and-mortar, women-only MBA program and offer the degree online only. At a time when there’s an urgent need for more women in business and tech, one could easily imagine a growing role for Simmons. Instead, dwindling enrollment and a less-than-lustrous financial picture weighed down the 40-year-old program, despite a distinctive niche and an impressive roster of alumnae.

It’s a painful development straight out of a business school case study on disruptive technology and changing market conditions. Simmons officials hold that the transition to an online program, which takes effect next March, is essential in light of the challenging and highly competitive market for MBA students nationally. That’s attributable, in part, to the fact that many business schools are attempting to boost their own gender diversity and aggressively recruiting women. Simmons president Helen Drinan characterized the move as being part of a larger, longer-term strategy to strengthen the online offerings of the school’s graduate programs. This follows a successful launch of an online-only nursing master’s degree program two years ago — there are about 1,000 students enrolled in it now, Drinan says. But full-time enrollment in the MBA program has declined. According to data provided by the school, the number has decreased 38 percent since 2008. Currently, there are 105 students in the MBA program, both full-time and part-time. “From our point of view, the strength of the program can’t be sustained only on the part-time side,” says Drinan. “It’s not a good financial model.”

Still, the decision caught alumnae by surprise, leaving many to wonder why the administration had not harnessed the power of the school’s far-flung network. Drinan has a ready response: “You can’t have your alumnae solving your enrollment problems.”

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Yet as the tech and biotech sectors drive more and more of the region’s economic success, Simmons might in fact be missing out on an opportunity for growth. C.A. Webb, who just left her post as executive director of the New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA), and who graduated from Simmons’ school of management in 2006, observes that the college’s mission of educating women is more critical today than it was at the time of its founding. It’s worth noting that the new online MBA program will be explicitly open and marketed to men. “The dearth of women in technology and women in venture capital makes front page news nearly every day,” she says. “Repositioning [Simmons] as the school to enable women to succeed in technology careers would be logical; [the] decision to shift entirely online is not.”

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For more recent Simmons MBA graduates, the move feels more consequential. Some feel that moving the program to an online-only offering devalues the degree. “If hiring managers don’t value my degree, I can’t practice what I’ve learned,” wrote a woman via Twitter using the hashtag #SimmonsMBA.

The online market for MBA programs is an increasingly crowded space. It can only be hoped that Simmons can retain its all-important mission: nurturing a new generation of women business leaders.

Related:

Dante Ramos: Has inequality doomed small, private colleges?

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