Online MBA students outnumber in-person students for the first time

online students MBA

For the first time, there were more full-time MBA students enrolled in online programs than in-person programs during the 2020-21 academic year. And business education leaders expect this trend to persist even post-pandemic. 

“With the renewed emphasis on upskilling and more equitable work-life balances, I expect we will continue to see an increase in online MBA enrollment in the future,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, President and CEO of the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools (AACSB) International, a prominent business school accreditation agency.

Twenty-five percent more students were enrolled in online programs than fully face-to-face programs, AACSB officials said in an email to MBAchic.com, citing their latest figures.

online MBA students vs face-to-face in 2021-22
**Based on a sample of 264 U.S. schools reporting MBA program enrollment for 2021-22
**Provided by AACSB

Graduate education leaders credit the pandemic with helping online programs rise in prominence. 

“The pandemic thrust online learning to the forefront as most schools across the globe were forced to start delivering virtual instruction to students almost overnight,” says Bradley Staats, Senior Associate Dean for Strategy and Academics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The institution was one of the first in the U.S. to offer an online format of their top-tiered MBA program back in 2010, also reports having slightly more online than in-person students in 2021. 

“Now, a little over two years into the pandemic, learners have seen the benefits – flexibility in scheduling, greater access to AACSB-accredited schools, and the ability to work and study at home,” adds Beck-Dudley.

That increased level of flexibility is especially appealing to female MBA candidates. 

Forty-two percent of online MBA programs reported an increase in applications from prospective female students, according to an applications trends survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admissions Council.

Across gender lines, part-time, self-paced MBA programs reported a 69% increase in 2020 and 10% increase in enrollment in 2021.

The Online Student Perspective

Students who have received their MBAs from online programs say this surge in online students may signal a shift in perception that these programs carry the same level of academic legitimacy as their in-person counterparts. 

“I completed my MBA program entirely online and even received it from a non ‘mainstream’ program,” says Melissa Gordon, a member of the National Black MBA Association in Washington, D.C. 

“Once I added the degree to my resume, more companies became interested in me. Thus, allowing me to go on some amazing interviews for positions that I never would have qualified for without my MBA. Ultimately, I landed an almost 6-figure job.”

Catherine White Walker says she took MBA courses online and in-person.

“The online classes took a lot of discipline and more critical thinking because the instructor is not as available to you for Q & A.”

Still, MBA candidates stress that not all online programs are created equal, so it’s important to fully vet your program of choice to ensure it can help you meet your goals. 

“As far as credibility, I think [online programs] still suffer stigmas,” says Tivon Johnson, who graduated from George Washington University School of Business in 2022. “It may have been warranted in the past, but the world has changed. Yet, our old views and biases are slow to change. Something to consider when putting it on a resume.”

Rishona Campbell, who earned her MBA online from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2012, says she worked hard to connect with her peers and professors through LinkedIn and phone conversations.

“In the end, my degree or transcript doesn’t say how my coursework was delivered,” Campbell says. “So, a decade removed from graduation, it is not something that even really comes up as discussion in my professional life.”

Online Skills for the Future

Online collaboration has become a vital skill in the corporate world, and business leaders say an online MBA can prepare candidates to thrive in these settings.

“Our students become extremely proficient collaborating online, often working with peers across geographic boundaries and time zones using a variety of live and asynchronous communication tools,” says Staats from UNC. “These skills are increasingly required to conduct business around the world and are valued by employers.”

Still, while she expects online MBA programs to remain in the spotlight, she says face-to-face interactions are still highly valuable for future business leaders, so UNC creates opportunities for hybrid and optional in-person experiences.

online students MBA

Photo by Avel Chuklanov

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Shernay is a mom, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner who's been fortunate to spend her entire professional career telling stories. She has more than a decade of experience as a TV, print, and radio journalist for local and national news outlets. In 2016, she launched a content firm to help nonprofits and businesses tell their stories more strategically. Her passions: mom empowerment, entrepreneurship, and self-development.

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