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The Online MBA in Human Resources Explained

Human ResourcesOnce upon a time, long, long ago, human resources management was all about hiring and firing personnel and not much else.

"Nowadays, human resources has a seat at the executive table, and managers must have a higher degree of understanding many aspects of the business, such as marketing," says Edward French, the academic program director of the Business Division, including its online arm, at Franklin Pierce University's College of Graduate and Professional Studies.

HR managers are recruiters, cheerleaders, morale boosters, and crafters of the team that makes a business hum. In many ways, they are the glue that holds a company together. As a result, many people looking to climb to management in HR turn to online MBA programs with specialized concentrations and degrees.

"We live in an online world," says Matt Randall, graduate re-enrollment adviser at Saint Leo University and a 2013 graduate of the institution's online MBA with a human resources concentration. "When you're an adult with a family and a job, you can't be sitting in class for four hours. The online program makes it easier to complete your degree."

What is an online MBA in human resources management?

An MBA in human resources management provides students with the core courses of a typical, general MBA, along with HR-specific electives. You can expect classes, such as marketing, strategy, and operations management in the core, and compensation and benefits, training, and employment law among the electives.

Often, the courses for these programs are offered online, on-campus, or a combination of both. The online or combo versions offer convenience because, usually, you can do your coursework at your own pace from the comfort of your home, office, hotel, or anywhere else you go with an Internet connection.

Typically, online courses are delivered via a learning management platform, such as Blackboard, from which you can keep track of lectures for viewing, assignments (reading, papers, projects), discussion threads for participation with your classmates, and any opportunities for live streaming events, such as a guest lecturer. The good news is that most schools make live events an option and not a requirement for online students, and all these happenings are recorded, so you can review them at a time that is convenient for you.

The modern version of "the dog ate my homework" is "my computer crashed." But some schools, such as University of Wisconsin-Whitewater's College of Business and Economics, have a tech support team on call to help online students if there's a glitch getting in the way of their studies.

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Who is the typical online HR MBA student?

Most aspiring HR MBA students already work full-time in human resources or a relevant field, and are aiming to progress in their careers. Often, they also have other responsibilities, such as a family. For example, Patricia M. Gavorski, a student of Pennsylvania State University's online master of professional studies in human resources and employment relations (similar coursework to an HR MBA), chose an online program from a reputable bricks-and-mortar institution because she did not want to interrupt her career, but still wanted some prestige behind her degree.

Ironically, the highlight of the program for her was an intense course that she took on campus, which complimented her online coursework. Although she found it hard to get used to the online aspect of the program, she writes in an e-mail, she liked the "flexibility and self-paced homework and assignments."

Being an online student takes some self-discipline, but it ends up having great value, say students and alumni. They don't have to uproot their lives, and it allows them the chance to immediately apply what they're learning on the job.

Erin Rychalsky, a 2012 graduate of Franklin Pierce's HR MBA, works as a support specialist for a software company that sustains a cloud-based workforce management product. She often turns to compliance knowledge and interpersonal skills to help clients set up performance reviews, Affordable Care Act reporting, Family and Medical Leave Act tracking, and other HR, payroll, and workforce management pieces of the product, she writes in an e-mail. In addition, she trains and mentors new hires at the company.

"I have found that the knowledge and skills I gained through my MBA program can be used to assist my co-workers and the clients, who use my company's products and services," Rychalsky adds.

How can you apply to an online HR MBA?

Each program has different requirements for enrolling. Most require you fill out an online application, pay an application fee, provide transcripts, and hold an undergraduate degree. Some require recommendations from supervisors with whom you've worked. Many ask you to write about your reasons for pursuing a degree and state your post-graduate goals. Standardized tests such as the GMAT, the graduate admissions test that most bricks-and-mortar programs request applicants take, are less common. However, some online programs ask students with lower GPAs from undergrad programs take the test to prove they will be able to handle the rigor of an HR MBA course.

How can I find the best online HR MBA program for me?

Finding the Right ProgramYou need to do some research on the various programs out there. The best part is that you're not limited by geography, unless you want to be able to take some courses on campus. Finally, you can ask the following of each program and match the responses with your unique goals:

1. Is this an accredited program? What is the institution's reputation among recruiters in the HR management sector?

University of Wisconsin Whitewater's online program is AACSB accredited. This is a big deal because AACSB is an accrediting body that observes whether business schools are meeting certain criteria before signing off on them.

You might also look beyond accreditation to determine a school's reputation. For instance, Franklin Pierce University's HR program was reviewed by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a widely known professional organization in this sector. In fact, the school is the only graduate program in New Hampshire to have a local chapter of SHRM and online students join, too.

2. Is this program in tune with my career goals?

If the school does not offer courses that will address the issues you're facing at work (or will be facing if you get that promotion), then it's not going to be of value to you. Randall, a 2013 graduate of Saint Leo's online HR MBA, says his biggest takeaway was learning how to best train people, and he applies his new skills when recruiting and training students in his university position.

Most of the programs offer similar classes in the HR field, but probe about the professors who teach these courses. Some have adjuncts, who are real world practitioners, which means they hold down actual jobs in HR and can share that experience with you. Others are academics, or full-fledged professors. These guys read and write books for a living. They conduct research that may or may not relate directly to the HR field. Some online courses have video lectures and assignments from a combination of these kinds of professors. There are pros and cons to both types of teachers. Only you know which is best for you.

3. Will I earn a degree if I complete the course work successfully?

Of course, you want some proof that you went through this program, so that you can put it on your resume and have something to show for it. So, make sure that the online program you're taking offers a degree. If an actual degree is too much of a time commitment for you, then you might consider certificate programs in HR, which offer condensed coursework and fewer credit hours than a degree program. You can talk with an enrollment advisor at the schools that interest you for more information about your options.

4. How will I interact with my classmates and professors in this program?

Ask about the various delivery methods (video lectures, discussion threads, etc.) of online coursework and how you'll be able to get in touch. For instance, faculty of Saint Leo's online HR MBA program are required to respond to student queries within 48 hours. And some professors of the program at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater hold office hours via WebEx. The point is that you don't want to feel as though you are all alone in your education, even if you're taking courses in your pajamas in your living room.

5. How much does this MBA cost?

Let's face it. Any higher education costs money, but most of us are not Rockefeller. Even if you are, you still want to get the most bang for your buck. So, you need to find out about the tuition of the online program and see if it works with your budget and whether you feel the value of what the school is offering is comparable to the price.