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All About the University of Maryland's Smith Online MBA

University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business has long been as ambitious as its student body. "The chief aim…is to produce thinkers rather than routine workers, executives rather than subordinates," according to one of its first course catalogs, which was printed in the early 1920s. By 1947, the school issued its first MBA degrees.

Even though the school's popularity took a hit during World War II -- as students and faculty marched off to battle -- it created the Army Specialized Training Program to prepare students to assist in the policing and administration of occupied territories, according to the Smith School Web site.

The school came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, earning its first research grant, encouraging more women and minorities to enroll, and being the first school at the university to have separate undergraduate admissions, which made the process more selective and competitive.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the school gained respect among intellectuals and recruiters, earned more grants, and became increasingly aware of technology and the global marketplace. It doubled its physical size and increased research initiatives in the 2000s. Today, they offer one of the best online MBA programs in Maryland.

The Smith Online MBA

The Smith School is one of 12 colleges and schools on the University of Maryland's College Park campus. And it is consistently ranked by top publications among the best business schools in the world. One of its biggest accomplishments is the development of a rigorous online MBA program.

Sure, there are lots of online business courses out there, but this one stands out, says Gary Cohen, assistant dean of Executive Programs at the Smith School. "The differentiator is that our online MBA students can receive their degree from a business school that is highly ranked and respected in the United States," he adds.

Faculty members from the on-campus programs teach online students, and the rigor is the same, says Cohen. Students are able to earn the MBA in as few as 21 months, and they can specialize in general management, finance, information systems and business analytics, accounting, or marketing.

Like most online programs, this one offers flexibility to those who are prohibited from attending school on campus because of hectic work schedules or family obligations. Active military and veterans are attracted to the online program, too, says Cohen.

For example, Abrehet Abdu, a scientist at Mesoscale Diagnostics in Rockville, Md., considered both the traditional part-time MBA program and the online one. She needed flexibility because of her busy schedule and there was one other bonus for her. "Being an environmentalist, I am all for cutting down unnecessary driving," says Abdu. "So once I realized the curriculum for the online and the part-time program were the same, I opted for the online program."

Most of the coursework is asynchronous, meaning students can access the material and complete assignments on their own time. There are live online classes presented using Adobe Connect video conferencing, which last for 90 minutes each week and bring together students and instructors. There are also opening and closing residencies that have people meeting face to face.

One of the highlights of the coursework is the Action Learning Project, also known as ALP. This is a practical learning experience that has students trying to tackle a real world business problem. They must use the knowledge they have acquired in the core curriculum, and they usually have to address entrepreneurship, business process consulting, or leading change. Readers of the web site know not to confuse ALPs with ordinary class projects. "It's like comparing skim milk to a milkshake," according to the Smith School.

To get into the program, you must complete an application similar to that of traditional MBA programs. Most students have a minimum of two years of work experience, and must submit a transcript and bachelor's degree from an accredited institution, one required essay, one optional essay, and official GMAT or GRE results.

Career Services and Networking

Most students have full-time jobs and are not looking to make major changes. In other words, they require different kind of career help than their counterparts in traditional full-time programs. Still, they have access to the Office of Career Services, says Cohen. "For those online MBA students who are looking for advice on their careers or seeking to make a change, our Office of Career Services is available and eager to help them," he adds.

While online programs often get mixed reviews from employers and recruiters, this one has the school's history to back it up. "Corporate recruiters who know our school and reputation, also know that we will graduate high quality students from our online MBA program," says Cohen. "The bottom line is that the reaction has been positive."

Some people wonder if students can grow a network of contacts when enrolling in an online MBA program. But James Okland Cannon, president of Cannon Wealth Group, who expects to graduate from the Smith online MBA in 2015, says that's a big misconception. "The interaction with classmates is remarkable," he notes. "We have formed bonds even being remote. Many of us meet in person to complete projects and interact online almost daily."

In fact, Abdu says her qualms about being unable to create strong bonds with the community vanished almost immediately. "Once I started the program, we had a residency for three days where I got to meet all the people in my cohort," she adds. "In addition, for each class, we have a live session every week where everyone is on his or her webcam. So, it is like a real class where you get to see all your classmates and interact. We also have a lot of group projects, and they make sure we have different groups in each class. This has led to a lot of networking and making friends in such a short time."

Clearly, the Smith School has extended its professionalism and academic rigor to its new programs, including the online MBA. It attracts students from many different U.S. states and even inside Maryland, thanks to the convenient and flexible schedule. Technology and structure allow students to gain camaraderie and a bigger network despite the fact that the courses are mostly conducted online. And students say they can immediately apply what they are learning on the job.

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