Are online MBAs worth it?

online MBAs worth it

Want to get your MBA but can’t fathom that daily campus commute? It’s just a click away. 

One of the many effects of the pandemic was a rapid shift to online learning, especially in the United States, where total enrollments in online MBA programs exceeded that of full-time MBA enrollments for the first time in the 2020-21 academic year. From student preferences, to flexible scheduling, to educational affordability, online coursework remains a thriving market for business schools to enter as they accommodate students interested in upskilling without the geographical confines of a traditional in-person MBA pursuit. There are now over 360 online MBA programs across the US alone, with global options exploding rapidly. Even a few prestigious Ivy Leagues are getting into the online arena. Brown University blends interactive online learning with in-person sessions and in 2023, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School announced an online executive MBA program. Both exclusive opportunities mix digital and campus-taught education. “We aim to bring together our most diverse cohort of learners yet – business professionals whose location, work, or personal situations preclude them from extensive travel but who share a passion for learning from Wharton faculty and from each other,” said Brian Bushee, Senior Vice Dean of Teaching and Learning at the Wharton School. 

An MBA on your time

While in-person MBA programs require students to live near campus and attend classes and other events in person, online MBA programs afford students additional access and flexibility – completing coursework from wherever they choose. Some classes may be synchronous, but most online business degrees allow students to work on their own time, from anywhere, asynchronously. With occasional invitations to attend campus for orientations, residencies and other programming events, the social interactions and networking opportunities for online programs can be a dramatically different scene than the traditional route, a deterrent for some students. However, depending on the school and the program, some online MBAs have access to all of the school’s career services, including individual appointments with career consultants. The biggest consideration to keep in mind is that regardless of the path you pursue, everyone earns the same degree. In many programs, the same faculty teach both programs. 

Even before the pandemic, online MBA programs were growing in popularity. Now more than ever, schools are recognizing the importance of providing students with options that match their lifestyles. Laura Reyero, Associate Dean of ESCP’s MBA in International Management, says the timing of business school can be a barrier for many women who are juggling to take on other roles in their personal and professional lives. Online offerings eliminate the issue entirely. 

“The age range of MBA students, around 30 years old, coincides with the age when many women start their families,” she tells MBAchic. “We know that when they have or are planning to have children, they are the ones who most often take on the role of raising them, especially when they are babies.” Keeping this reality in mind inspired ESCP to develop a hybrid model option for participants. “Though not 100% online, it is hybrid and provides flexibility in the timeframe for completion (participants can finish the program within three years) and in the courses that can be selected to take online,” says Reyero. This flexibility (which significantly benefits female students) is a selling point that participants consistently express appreciation for.

While full-time MBA program students typically participate in more extracurricular activities, such as clubs and on-campus events for two year programs, there is nothing typical about the average online MBA student at UNC Kenan-Flagler, apart from the fact that most are full time working professionals. Director of MBA@UNC, Matthew Hente, tells MBAchic that while UNC’s online program attracts students from all over the country, some might be surprised to learn that they also attract students who can drive to campus for evening and weekend MBA programs. The common thread? Completing coursework on a schedule that’s conducive to their already busy lives.

“They value the extra time with family – being at home for bedtime, then signing on for class,” Hente says. “An online program is also ideal for people who already travel a lot for work and for people in the military – they can take classes from wherever they are in the world. Our students can literally take their studies anywhere, meaning they can continue to study, without missing classes or assignments, anywhere life takes them during the program, work travel, family commitments, even vacations.”

“Students can literally take their studies anywhere, meaning they can continue to study, without missing classes or assignments, anywhere life takes them during the program, work travel, family commitments, even vacations.”

Matthew Hente, Director of MBA@UNC

Accessibility for all

Along with flexibility, affordability ranks high on the online MBA pro list. There are many affordable online MBA programs options for students to explore, but the range that students will pay is hugely varied. Some programs cost less than $10,000 in totality (Louisiana Tech University will cost out-of-state students under $8,000), while others hover upwards of $200,000 (Wharton priced their new online option at $214,000, about 1.5 percent more than the school’s on-campus EMBA program price of $210,900). While Wharton’s online degree is on one end of the extreme – costing $94,600 more than the $119,400 average of the top five most expensive online degrees ranked by Poets and Quants, it’s worth noting that as some schools are making online degrees more accessible and affordable, others are opting to leverage their brand reputation and price accordingly. Finding the right fit is personal and dependent on a multitude of factors, but a less extensive financial commitment inevitably means positioning yourself for a post-MBA career win. Of course scholarships, fellowships, student loans, and company sponsorships are all ways to pay for your MBA.  While studies consistently show that an MBA from one of the top schools commands a strong ROI regardless of the economic climate when a student undertakes a program, that doesn’t mean inflation isn’t a serious consideration for those applying right now. More about affording an MBA in the era of inflation here

The online student experience

In a work culture that is constantly rewarding talent that wants to upskill, it makes sense that the increasing shift to online education benefits professionals who want to learn more without interrupting their career progress. The average work experience of applicants to top online MBA programs is between six and 10 years, whereas the average falls between three and five years for full-time programs, according to several business school administrators. 

Olivia Mytrowitz is currently in her last semester of her MBA at UMass Amherst. As a Senior Enablement Business Lead at Adobe, the biggest factors in her decision to pursue an online MBA were the flexibility with her fulltime schedule and the variety of business school options (as a New Jersey resident, she didn’t want to limit her experience to a local radius). Now that she is nearly done with her MBA, she says she can confidently reflect that her job did not suffer with the additional classwork workload. 

“I am much better now at managing time and setting boundaries than I ever was,” Mytrowitz tells MBAchic.  

What surprised her the most about the online MBA experience is the accessibility and interaction with fellow students and her professors. “I met with multiple teachers in 1:1 office hours and got to know them personally while simultaneously getting a hands-on learning experience from them,” says Mytrowitz. “I have met and networked with many people from different walks of life during discussion boards and group projects. The interaction with peers has been my favorite part of the online MBA that I thought I was going to miss out on by opting for online.”

Distance learning students like Mytrowitz constantly echo the importance of building connections with classmates and professors – a critical component of maximizing the value of an online MBA. Another major consideration is the pacing of the coursework as working professionals manage their personal lives, professional responsibilities, and rigorous business graduate programs. Hente explains that while most students in the MBA@UNC program complete it within 24 months, they can extend it to 36 months. 

“In our online MBA program, women build broad and deep networks with their classmates – in their entering cohort and with peers who entered before and after they enrolled,” says Hente. “Each class gives them the opportunity to connect with new, diverse peers during live, synchronous classes – and they meet each other during in-person Summits and strengthen those personal connections. They are deeply engaged in the life of UNC Kenan-Flagler, including Carolina Women in Business and our 100 Women initiative.”

The business world embraces online learning

Companies are accepting and embracing the online learning environment at a growing rate according to GMAC. The global percentage of employers who view graduates of digital and campus-taught programs equally increased from 34% in 2021 to 60% last year. A different study released by the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that even more employers – 71% view business degrees acquired online as equal to or better than traditional programs in quality.

71% of employers view business degrees acquired online as equal to or better than traditional programs in quality.

Schools say the normalization of hybrid working environments has contributed to this shift in perception, and in order to capture the interest of incoming students, educators are becoming more innovative in virtual delivery methods. 

“An online MBA prepares you for the digital environment and advances your technology skills that will transfer over into the hybrid virtual/in-person working world,” explains Mytrowitz. Additionally, Mytrowitz notes that based on her personal experience, the quality of the learning materials and interactivity have more to do with the way an individual student learns rather than the delivery method itself. “I have found that many of my online classes have included more interactivity with other students and higher quality learning materials than the in-person classes I took in undergrad,” she says. 

“An online MBA prepares you for the digital environment and advances your technology skills that will transfer over into the hybrid virtual/in-person working world.”

Olivia Mytrowitz, Senior Enablement Business Lead at Adobe

The online learning market is projected to grow almost twice as much in size compared to 2019 statistics. By 2026, the global e-learning market is forecast to reach almost 400 billion U.S. dollars. In 2019, the global e-learning market was sized at almost 200 billion US dollars. 

Will technology ever replace the feeling of walking on campus during a crisp fall morning? Noticing a classmate and stopping to chat, settling into your familiar spot in your classroom or preparing for a lively discussion in your lecture hall before heading to your study group at the library? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality is that it provides a viable option and a much needed life-line for working students, busy parents, and skilled professionals who realized during the pandemic that they want an MBA to be a part of their personal journey, but need a more flexible academic fit for their lives. The stigma that an online MBA isn’t equivalent to a traditional MBA in both quality of academics and networking experience is beginning to fade into the rearview as work structures shift and companies continue to embrace an increasingly hybrid environment. As online program offerings expand and grow, it will undoubtedly create more opportunities for nontraditional, diverse classes to earn graduate degrees—and consequently, to become more socially and economically mobile.

Photo from Surface

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