How to pay for a part-time MBA program

BY Nicole Gull McElroyDecember 03, 2021, 2:34 PM
Students walk through the “Free Expression Tunnel” at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, in September 2021.
Logan Cyrus—Bloomberg/Getty Images

One of the most obvious benefits of enrolling in a part-time MBA program is the freedom to earn an income while pursuing a degree. That flexibility can make all the difference in what kind of debt (if any) you take on postgraduation, not to mention whether or not you’ll be able to leverage any reimbursement from your employer, grants, or scholarships to cover some of the cost

Research by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) shows that the main objective of a part-time program is to deliver the benefits of a full-time program with greater flexibility. In order to meet the needs of incoming students—who now travel less, work from home more, and maybe even juggle more household responsibility—business schools need to offer flexible and part-time programs, says Caryn Beck-Dudley, president of the AACSB, which accredits business schools worldwide. 

Part-time programs are offered entirely online, in person, or as a hybrid of the two—and this can also affect how much you owe. The cost associated with a part-time MBA program varies as much as the programs themselves. Johns Hopkins University has a part-time program (completed online or in person) priced around $89,000, while Northwestern University’s Kellogg School offers a part-time option (completed at night or on weekends at either an accelerated or traditional pace) that costs up to $150,000.  

“We are realizing the cost isn’t the facilities,” says Dana Hansson, director of MBA programs at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. “The cost is the high-quality faculty.” 

Many schools, like Virginia Tech, believe that having top-notch faculty affords students an open opportunity for long-term relationships and mentorships, even beyond the degree. Just as students create ties to one another and share experience across industries, faculty can be very valuable beyond the classroom. When choosing the right part-time program for you, cost is certainly a top consideration, and the key is to find the balance of time and investment that makes the most sense for your goals and career path.

Program costs matter

While not every part-time MBA program offers the same course offerings and mix of online, hybrid, or in-person learning, the range is well worth exploring because it could sway how much you pay for tuition. If you definitely want to attend class in person, your pool of options will be first informed by your allowable commute. By contrast, if you’re willing to attend school online, geography is potentially eliminated from your list of priorities, which opens up the opportunity to attend far-flung schools in your price range. 

Such flexibility can draw in a more geographically diverse group of students. For example, the most recent cohort of 31 students at Virginia Tech’s online MBA program (designed for working professionals) represents eight states and three branches of the military, says Hansson. 

Some schools, like the University of Michigan, offer residencies and off-campus immersions. Those programs may have some elements covered by tuition (travel or housing), while other pieces of the experience fall to the student. For part-time MBA programs at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, the school covers the cost of the in-person residencies, but students must pay their own way to and from the residency, according to Patti Russo, managing director of these programs.

A balanced approach

For Alex Klotsche, paying for his MBA at Johns Hopkins’s Carey Business School has been a mashup of self-funding, scholarships through the school, and some tuition reimbursement programs through his job as a nurse at New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. “Luckily, as a nurse, I am often able to work additional shifts,” he says. “I sometimes put this additional income directly to paying my tuition or, more recently, invest it into the stock market and later put it towards tuition payments.” 

Scholarship America, the nation’s largest nonprofit private scholarship organization, reports that as of 2019 nearly $22 billion was offered in tuition reimbursement by nearly 70% of employers. The Society for Human Resources Management reports slightly different numbers. As of 2020, SHRM found 47% of the companies surveyed offered tuition reimbursement benefits to their employees, with 8% offering student loan repayment benefits. 

Michigan’s Russo points out that it isn’t uncommon for part-time students to move up the ranks while in school, too. That could mean a salary bump mid-program, which better allows students to contribute to their tuition plan. At Johns Hopkins, for example, 58% of enrolled part-time MBA students report a salary increase during their coursework. 

Timing can also factor into how you’ll pay for your MBA. Johns Hopkins allows a six-year window for completion, and its hospital affiliation is hard to beat in his industry, says Klotsche. The broad six-year window keeps both career advancement and flexibility in paying for the degree totally up to him as he moves through the program. 

Scholarships, grants, and more

Many schools offer scholarships for entering and enrolled students, as well as backing from any endowment the school may have. Beck-Dudley says what schools can offer incoming students in terms of tuition coverage is a big draw and often competitive. 

Johns Hopkins, for example, offers up to 18 endowed merit-based scholarships every year at the Carey Business School. “We have a real commitment to scholarship in our programs; every student is considered,” says D. Jill Green, associate dean, education and student experience at Carey. “We look at their prior academic record, and 40% are offered some sort of scholarship funding. Last year we gave out more than $1 million for our Flex MBA program.” 

Members of the military (and sometimes members of their families) are eligible for tuition reimbursement through government programs included in the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The amount allowed tends to rise incrementally each year or so, but as of April 2020 the program covered up to 36 months of tuition assistance and a bit more than $26,000 per academic year in approved programs.

At Villanova University, students enrolled in the part-time Flex Track MBA program have the option of applying for fellowships to cover their tuition. Fellows work 20 hours each week for a designated faculty member for up to four semesters depending on their academic performance. 

Green points out that striking a balance between how long you take to complete your MBA and how you pay for it is where the sweet spot is for many students. “We have a lot of students that will enroll for less than half time, one or two courses a term, to leverage their company’s reimbursement program.”

The demand for part-time programs, Green says, has been long-established and perhaps fueled somewhat by the pandemic. “We experienced tremendous volume in interest. Part-time was very robust. If there was ever a time to do it, now is the time.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.