How Good Is an Online MBA, and How Short Is Short?
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – DEAR ANNIE: I'd like to get an MBA, and since I live quite some distance from the nearest university with a graduate business school, I'm toying with the idea of getting a degree online. Do you know of any comprehensive catalog or listing of schools that currently offer online MBAs? Also, do you have a clear sense of whether employers value these degrees as highly as the regular kind? MARY ANN

DEAR MARY ANN: I've been curious myself about whether virtual credentials carry as much weight as the kind you earn in person, so I've done a lot of asking around about this, and so far, anyway, the answer is a resounding "maybe." On the one hand, companies seem to like the notion of training people online. A recent survey of human resources managers, by workplace consultants Drake Beam Morin, found that an almost unanimous 94% believe technology-based learning is a viable option for teaching professional development (a.k.a. soft skills). About three-quarters of them expect computerized training to become the norm within five years. According to new figures from researchers at IDC (www.idc.com), the overall online-education market will explode from its current $1.8 billion (with about 700,000 students) to $5.5 billion (2.2 million students) by 2002. Says LaVonne Reimer Young, CEO of a company called Cenquest (www.cenquest.com), which designs and delivers online courses, including master's degrees: There is enormous interest in this from companies that are worried about retention. They're attracted to the idea of allowing employees to save time by getting a degree without leaving the office. Cenquest now has students from more than 50 tuition-reimbursing employers that presumably value virtual credentials, or they wouldn't be paying for them. (If you'd like to try out a sampling of material from an online course in new-product development, go to www.cenquest.com/ilearnarcade.)

Fine and dandy, but the dozen or so executive recruiters and senior managers I spoke with (in an unscientific poll I conducted by flipping through my Rolodex) voiced concerns about whether an online degree was really the full equivalent of the in-person kind. This is not because they doubt that the work is as demanding (it generally is) but because half the value of a traditional MBA lies in face-to-face discussions that spark ideas and build team-leadership and negotiating skills. It seems the jury is still out on whether you can get the same quality of experience in a virtual classroom. One headhunter, who asked to remain nameless, did point out that with more and more prestigious schools launching online graduate programs, the question may be moot: Let's say you got an MBA online from Duke. Just put Duke on your resume, without mentioning that you never physically went there. Uh-huh. And then be prepared to explain how you went to Duke while living in Montana.

Even the skeptics more or less agree that for some kind of career advancement, an online MBA is preferable to no MBA at all. So if you want to check out your options, a detailed guide to virtual degree programs at 350 accredited colleges and universities (about 100 of which offer MBAs) is available at www.accrediteddldegrees.com. And, especially if you work for a large organization, don't neglect to ask the human resources people whether online education--which is sometimes quite costly--is covered by the company's tuition-reimbursement plan. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

DEAR ANNIE: Please settle an argument. I'm in charge of writing up my company's summer casual-dress code, and I want to ban short shorts. Some colleagues (female) say I am too stuffy. We have agreed to abide by your decision on this. What do you say? OLD-FASHIONED

DEAR O.: I'm with you. I'll tell you why: As a rule, people should avoid wearing anything that shows so much skin that it distracts other people from their work. I often get plaintive letters from men who are befuddled by women who say they want to be treated as equals and admired for their brains, yet prance around the office in clothes that send, um, a very different message. So come on, ladies. Have a heart.

GOT A QUESTION OR COMMENT? E-MAIL: askannie@fortunemail.com mail: Ask Annie, FORTUNE, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, Room 1559, N.Y., N.Y. 10020. Please include an afterwork phone number. ANNIE OFFERS ADDITIONAL SHARP ADVICE ON WORKPLACE AND CAREER ISSUES ONLINE. POINT YOUR WEB BROWSER TO WWW.ASKANNIE.COM.