How long does it take to get an MBA?

BY Sarah Thomas-OxtobyMay 09, 2023, 3:01 PM
University of California, Los Angeles students take an afternoon hammock break during warm weather on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles, as seen in April 2023. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Among the many questions people often have when they consider pursuing an MBA is: How long will it take to complete the degree? That answer largely depends on whether you decide to go to school full-time versus part-time, along with the specific type of MBA program you attend.

On the low end of the range, an accelerated MBA program generally takes one year to complete, while part-time programs can be stretched out as long as five years at some business schools—and each pathway features a unique set of pros and cons. In addition, you must consider whether you will attend an in-person or online MBA program—and, finally, whether you’re qualified to apply to an executive MBA program (EMBA), which typically requires applicants to satisfy a minimum amount of work experience and be in a leadership role.

To learn more about MBA program offerings and the varying program lengths, Fortune recently sat down with Ashish Bhardwaj, senior vice president and head of market development at the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). He shared findings from the council’s 2022 prospective student survey that offers some insight into the types of programs that are attracting students.

“The one thing that is very clear, and it comes through in all our interactions with schools, but it’s also coming through very clearly in our survey research, is the idea that candidates do value flexibility,” Bhardwaj tells Fortune.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have expanded avenues for students to earn their MBA, which can mean learning on-campus, online, or a hybrid approach—and over a period of time that suits the needs of the individual. Taking the time to consider your career goals—such as whether you’re looking to switch careers or secure a promotion with your current employer—can help determine the best fit for you when selecting an MBA program, and its delivery format. 

1 year: Accelerated MBA programs

For people who want to expedite the amount of time it takes to earn their degree, a one-year MBA program can be a good fit. These programs are also appealing to people who don’t plan to career switch, but instead aim to increase their earnings by advancing into a leadership role within their current organization. 

Based on data from the GMAC’s 2022 prospective student survey, accelerated programs have grown in popularity. “We’ve found that the one-year MBA overtook the two-year MBA as the most preferred program,” says Bhardwaj. 

Another advantage of a one-year MBA program is less time enrolled in courses than a two-year program, equating to a lower tuition bill overall. That said, there are other factors to consider when deciding between a one-year, traditional two-year, or part-time MBA program.

One of the disadvantages of a one-year MBA program is students don’t have the opportunity to complete a summer internship, which generally takes place between the first and second year in a traditional program. That means one-year students miss out on an opportunity for a summer internship to lead to a full-time job offer. Finally, less time in school also equates to less time for networking.

2 years: Traditional MBA programs 

Disadvantages of the one-year MBA program can shift to advantages for students who choose to enter a two-year program, since the opportunity to complete a summer internship could potentially help you land a full-time role. At a minimum, internships provide real workplace experience and a chance to network in the industry.

Particularly for students who relocate, they will have more time to acclimate to their new environment in a traditional program, as the longer term organically provides more chances to build connections with peers.

Career switchers who are looking to enter a new field can also benefit from the longer length of time that a full-time program provides—and the opportunity to focus entirely on school during those two years.

Even so, there are disadvantages to the traditional MBA programs—and one of the largest is taking a longer period of time out of the workforce, and subsequently racking up a higher tuition bill. What’s more, life doesn’t stop when an MBA program starts, so people in a traditional program have to balance school along with personal responsibilities for a year longer than those in a one-year, accelerated MBA program.

Typically 3 years or longer: Online and part-time MBA programs

The amount of time it takes to complete online or part-time MBA programs is usually longer—and that’s because students are typically going to school while working full-time. And the online MBA space in particular has become “pretty complex,” creating an increasingly wide variety of options that means there’s not “just one version” of an online format, says Bhardwaj.

“There are several ranges of online programs, synchronous or asynchronous, and hybrid programs that are trying their best to give flexibility but still require some residency,” he continues.

While an appeal of both part-time and online programs is that students may be able to set the pace of their education, doing so will also mean they don’t go through school as a cohort. Another trade-off of online MBA programs is that it can be more challenging for students to create a peer network compared to their in-person counterparts, says Bhardwaj. Why? “On-campus students are not only learning from faculty when taking in-person classes, but also learning from, and interacting with each other.”

Still, these types of disadvantages may not outweigh the advantages.  

“Our survey shows very clearly that students who want to study online or in hybrid format, but are equally interested in developing their potential, do understand that it [attending online] does hold them back to a certain extent,” says Bhardwaj. “They recognize that they cannot have comparable networking opportunities.”

Check out all of Fortune’s rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.