Is an online MBA worth it?

BY Nicole Gull McElroyApril 24, 2021, 10:22 AM
Martin Laksman

Ask Dana Hansson about Virginia Tech and she’ll spend 15 minutes easily sharing details about the beautiful Blacksburg campus, incredible alumni network, and rich academic offerings. The director of MBA programs at the university will also tell you that, as a working professional, you probably don’t want to quit your job and move to Virginia to get your degree. 

In fact, you can’t. The school shut down its full-time, in-person MBA in 2013. “Our campus is lovely but rural,” Hansson says. “We looked at where we were going strategically, and decided our resources and focus needed to be part-time students. We needed to shift from the model of a full-time student suspending a career and earning potential to come to a rural school with not a lot of hiring prospects locally.” 

As a result, Virginia Tech joined the ranks of so many other schools. By introducing an online-only program, these schools target working professionals who can’t relocate, lose income, or stall their career growth—but still want the benefit of an MBA on their résumés.

The decision to invest in an online MBA is personal. The process can be expensive and time consuming and requires hard work. Evaluating its worth can be tricky, so you really have to be clear on why you’re pursuing it in the first place. Some prospective students are mid-career and looking to use the degree to round out a liberal arts degree or other nonbusiness undergraduate education, while others hope the MBA will ease a transition between industries or simply fuel advancement within their organizations.

Opening unexpected doors

Dr. Cathy Dailey is a pediatrician and single mother to a teenage daughter in West Virginia. In 2014, in her mid-fifties, she decided to pursue an MBA at the Isenberg School of Management’s online program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The decision, she says, initially came from an offer to cut back on a daily pediatrics practice and join an administration team. 

Dailey returned to practicing medicine full-time mid-coursework, but she still feels her MBA guides her work as a doctor every day. “A lot of it is about leadership,” she says. “There is more to being a physician when you work for an organization. Every role is important, and this has given me footing to really understand how to make a system work better.”

Dailey’s experience isn’t so unusual. Traci Hess, associate dean of graduate programs at Isenberg, describes most of the school’s MBA candidates as “career advancers looking for a strong business foundation or a major career change.” 

“We do find our students benefit, and have significant pay increases, after graduation because they’re already in the right mindset,” Hess says. “Couple that mindset for advancement with the business foundation, and they’re ready to take advantage of opportunities. Pursuing an MBA is a signal to an employer that someone is ready to take that next step.”

For Dailey, that next step isn’t yet clear, but she is certain having an MBA gives her greater choice, especially if she wants to be considered for chief medical officer or find a job in administration full-time. “I’m not sure yet what I’ll do, but I don’t want to see patients the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m now on good footing, and this gives me more opportunity as my daughter goes on to college.” 

Bigger roles

An MBA degree is often a clearinghouse for employers and their HR departments, notes Steve Savino, assistant dean of graduate business programs and professor of practice in marketing at Lehigh University. “It’s a credential that can keep students from being rejected for potential opportunities.” 

Nearly 90% of employers plan to hire MBA grads in 2021, according to the results of a corporate recruiters survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a global association of business schools. And Vanguard, one of the largest investment management companies, is likely to be among them.

In order to attract and develop talent from elite business schools, Vanguard runs an MBA development program aimed at grooming future leaders. The company also partnered with nearby Drexel University to create the Drexel LeBow MBA program, says spokesperson Melissa Kennedy. Each year, about 30 employees are selected to participate in the program and hopefully advance their roles within the business. 

An MBA can also sway a hiring manager to make an offer when your résumé isn’t necessarily stacked with finance, marketing, or sales experience. Andrew Smith, a marketing leader at a major pharmaceutical company, says he is more inclined to hire someone with a disparate background if that person has gone the extra mile to round out his or her experience with an MBA. “If you don’t have the résumé experience already, an MBA makes a lot of sense to me,” he says.

Money, money, money

The median salary for MBA graduates in 2020 was $115,000, 75% more than the median salary for undergraduate degree holders, income stats from the GMAC survey show. Still, Hansson says it is difficult to pinpoint salary increases through Virginia Tech’s program because the coursework is usually done over several years and varies from student to student. 

Jeanne Simmons, associate dean of the Graduate School of Management at Marquette University, agrees. She says tracking jumps in income is tough to do given the rolling nature of online programs. Plus, because students are working while going to school, promotions and salary bumps often happen over the course of the degree work, she notes. 

“I often tell students when they first start, ‘Think about where you are now and write it down,’” Simmons says. “Many of our students get these incremental opportunities along the way because they’re learning as they go. They can learn from each other, too.” 

Simmons’s point is that the smaller, periodic changes made during the course of the degree may not feel as obvious as they would to a student who leaves a job, goes to school for two years, and then undergoes a job search to start anew post-MBA. Marked change happens, just not necessarily in one giant leap. 

And that has made all the difference for Dailey at UMass. “I’m always about the why,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to tell me, ‘You just have to do this.’ I need to understand why, and this degree has helped me fulfill so many different roles. I understand things better, and it is easier to make decisions.”