‘Online MBAs are not all the same’: Everything applicants should know

BY Nick RollApril 24, 2021, 10:30 AM
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In some ways, reaching the decision to get an MBA is the easiest part of the process. Then comes the hard part—rigorously researching schools, furnishing letters of recommendation, and preparing a competitive application. And as prospective students seek out schools, one of the decisions they will have to make is whether to pursue an online MBA or take the traditional, in-person route.

“Online MBAs are not all the same,” says Kate Barraclough, head of the MBA program at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, which offers both in-person and online options. In addition to determining what they want to get out of graduate school and what their career goals are, prospective students should research the curriculum, she says. “Is it the same degree, or am I following a different curriculum path? And if so, what does that curriculum mean?”

Online programs continue to proliferate, while some in-person programs have shut down in recent years, which means an online MBA is an option that’s increasingly available to students—and often at top schools.  

Who’s a good fit for an online MBA?

A major selling point at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business is that its online program, Kelley Direct, shares faculty with the traditional, in-person MBA. Will Geoghegan, interim chair of Kelley Direct, takes pride in how closely intertwined the traditional and online programs are.

“I’ve joked about this numerous times—that coming away from my strategy class in the full-time [traditional] MBA versus the Kelley Direct, [students] should have exactly the same scores on the final exam. So when it comes to rigor, the rigor is exactly the same,” says Geoghegan, who teaches courses both online and in person. 

Kelley’s online program offers a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, or courses that need to be attended live at a certain time, versus those that can be watched at any time. The option to choose is convenient since most online programs appeal to working professionals who need flexibility.

Given that online MBA programs typically skew toward older students who are already established at their company, Geoghegan says he tries to tailor his courses to account for the differences in the in-person and online cohorts. The in-person MBA, he notes, tends to have more people looking at a career change into business.

“But they’re not mutually exclusive,” he says of the types of students who pursue online versus in-person MBAs. Another nuance that might appear in the online cohort is that the students have determined they don’t want to leave the workforce to get an MBA. “The opportunity cost may be prohibitive for them. They may have families, for example, and they tend to really like their companies and their industries.”

But that’s not always the case. At Tepper, for example, the online students don’t necessarily trend older, Barraclough notes. And the integration of the online and in-person programs at Tepper mean students occasionally switch between the two, if there’s a change in their circumstances. Still, there can be differences in students’ career goals.

“Many of our students in the online program are what we would call career growers,” she says. “So they’re currently employed; they’re looking to stay in their current company and grow through that company.”

The thriving online MBA market

Online education, including in the MBA space, has been growing for years. And with that growth comes normalization—for students, professors, and, crucially, employers.

“Even before COVID came along, you were seeing some well-established, traditional academic enterprises getting seriously into the online delivery space,” says Tim Westerbeck, president of Eduvantis, an education consulting firm. The top 10 or so programs globally might be able to rely on the prestige of their in-person programs, he says. 

But as online learning has become commonplace, other schools have ramped up the ambition and rigor of their MBA programs. That has, in turn, increased the competition among schools to attract students and among companies looking to hire them.

For what it’s worth, employers seeking candidates rarely, if ever, differentiate between online and in-person MBAs, says Drew Belleau, an executive talent adviser at recruiting firm Insight Global. And how a student attended school isn’t usually obvious on a candidate’s résumé anyway, he adds.

“I don’t believe that there’s ever been a case where I have had a customer request that we give them a candidate who has a specific type of MBA,” Belleau says.

Is an online MBA worth it?

Even though Kelley’s online and traditional MBA programs hold students to the same academic standards, there are going to be pros and cons between the two programs, Geoghegan says.

The full-time, in-person MBA comes with the campus experience and constant, organic networking. International students get the advantage of access to the proper visas. And without a full-time job, “you get to dedicate all your time and energy holistically to your MBA,” Geoghegan says.

On the other hand, Barraclough notes, Tepper’s online program comes with greater flexibility than the in-person program, which is handy for people who are working, traveling, or in the military. Networking and job placement assistance might look different, but those university resources are still available for online students at Tepper and Kelley. 

Since online students are typically working full-time, they get to apply their lessons directly, and immediately, to their workplace. For example, at Kelley Direct, 64% of students in the 2019 and 2020 cohorts received a promotion during the course of their MBA, or within six months of finishing. At Tepper, a survey of 2020 graduates found that 89% of students got a promotion or landed a new job while in the program.

“In my strategy class, all of the assignments are based on the company that you work for,” Geoghegan says. “The ultimate goal is to present a strategic recommendation to your senior managers at the end of the class.”

How much is an online MBA?

Another advantage of completing an online MBA? Since many online MBAs are designed to be completed while working, students don’t have to forgo a salary while pursuing their education. 

Time taken to complete the program is also a factor. Tepper’s in-person and online programs end up costing the same, tuition-wise, at a cohort-constant amount of $140,000 in 2020. But the online program is spread over eight semesters, while the traditional MBA is four.

Kelley estimates that the total cost (including tuition, fees, and living expenses) will be about $53,000 each year (for two years) for in-state in-person MBA students, and about $76,600 for out-of-state students. The total cost to complete the Kelley Direct program—regardless of location and living expenses, since they’ll vary—is estimated at $74,500, total.

Other considerations

There are also misconceptions students might have about online programs that Geoghegan says should be corrected: Students in the online cohort tend to bond, even though classes are remote, and same for faculty-student connections. Many online programs have at least some sort of in-person programming with required intensive weekends or weeklong stints on campus.

“I think our online MBA students, I would almost venture to say, are more tight-knit than our full-time students,” says Barraclough.

Deciding on whether to pursue an online MBA requires the same kind of intensive research that researching an in-person MBA requires. Prospective candidates for online programs should check out what the student community looks like, and what sort of access they’ll have to university resources. But many of the big picture questions still hold, whether a student wants an online or an in-person experience.

“What do they want to get out of an MBA program?” Barraclough says prospective students should ask themselves. “Where do they see themselves, and what do they need to get there?”