Understanding the basics of a part-time MBA program

BY Shannon FitzgeraldAugust 04, 2021, 2:00 AM
The campus of Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Brooks Kraft LLC—Corbis/Getty Images

Most business schools, including many in the top ranks, offer part-time programs for working professionals who want to pursue an MBA—but who are at a point in their careers or personal lives when returning to school full-time is not the best option. While many part-time MBA students wish to stay on their current career path, some use the degree to shift roles or industries.

Part-time MBA programs offer a way to pursue a degree, with a longer schedule than traditional full-time programs, though you’ll need to sacrifice some free time and add more obligations to an already busy life. Hundreds of schools offer business programs with either evening or weekend schedules. You can expect access to many of the same faculty and resources as the school’s full-time MBA program—but during times that accommodate working professionals.

While most business schools offer both options, and accept applicants as either an evening or a weekend student, there is some mutability. The University of Michigan’s Ross recently began accepting applications only to its weekend program, for example, and the University of Chicago’s Booth is among programs that allow for some fluidity in scheduling classes in either track. Finally, Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper, the University of Washington’s Foster, and Ross are among schools that offer a hybrid program that is taught primarily online, but with some degree of on-campus curriculum and participation.

Here’s what you need to know about a part-time program if you’re considering applying.  

Experience counts

Most part-time MBA programs take two-and-a-half to three years to complete, though many allow for self-pacing, which can extend that time. And because these programs are designed for working professionals, many schools report that their part-time students have several more years of work experience than their full-time counterparts. 

At UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, for example, part-time students have five to 12 years of work experience compared with a range of three to eight years for full-time students. That difference is less pronounced (only a year or so), however, at schools like New York University’s Stern, UCLA’s Anderson, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.

Additional time in the workforce is one of the benefits of a part-time program. “The whole idea is that’s the experience that you are bringing into the classroom,” Jamie Breen says of the students who enter the part-time program at UC Berkeley’s Haas. Breen is the assistant dean for the evening and weekend (EWMBA) students, and describes this group as being at an inflection point in their careers and at their companies, stepping into leadership roles. 

Breen adds that the EWMBA students are exploring questions like, “What kind of shape do I want the rest of my career to be? What kind of roles do I want to play? Do I want to be the functional expert [or] do I want to be a line manager in general management?”    

Similar structures, different schedules

Though the schedule and timelines may be somewhat different, there is a lot of overlap between the full- and part-time programs at any one business school. Expect a lot of similarities in the core curriculum and elective offerings, faculty and facilities, career services and on-campus recruiting, as well as (mostly) comparable tuition costs and extracurricular offerings. 

When the EWMBAs arrive on Saturday morning at Haas, they have breakfast waiting before class starts and the school meticulously arranges the scheduling so the weekend group has lunch together and the evening group is synced for a dinner break in the middle. Breen says that Haas builds in as many opportunities as possible like this for the part-time students to socialize. “Honestly, our cohorts are as tight as our full-time cohorts are.”

Top schools also aim to create similar extracurricular offerings for the part-time students that are found in a full-time program. “We go out of our way to not make it transactional,” Breen says. “Everything from the way we structure cohorts, to events on campus, the way staff support them, and the way faculty are available.”

Career path for part-time students

Part-time MBA students might be a little older and a little further along in their careers—and many remain with their companies after graduating—but there is more career fluidity among this group than you might expect, including while in the program. About 75% of the EWMBA students change jobs or get promoted while in the Haas program, usually in their second year, Breen says. And, thanks to the Bay Area’s incubating climate, many entrepreneurially minded students start their own businesses. 

Suraj Kandukuri, a member of the University of Michigan’s 2021 MBA class, says that when he started in the weekend program, a professor advised the cohort to try to secure a promotion early on in the program and then be positioned for another upon graduation. “A lot of students took that to heart, and I saw a lot of people jump within their own company,” he says, noting that around the one-year mark, many of his classmates also switched companies.  

Another advantage to working while pursuing an MBA is the contemporaneous understanding or application of the curriculum. “If you are going into work and you are directly applying cost accounting to the job you have been doing, meaning you already have the full context of the company and its real-world application, that information is going to stick with you much longer,” Kandukuri says. “There is an advantage to not being in the MBA bubble that you get to apply in real time.”  

Finding the right fit

When choosing a part-time program, there may be more limiting factors to that decision, like the inability to temporarily relocate. Still, an aspiring MBA student has plenty of options to consider, including these: 

Location. What business schools can you commute to two nights a week? Does a weekend program allow you to cast a wider net?

Reputation. Some students have multiple part-time programs on their doorstep, such as Chicagoans, who can choose between Kellogg and Booth or Bay Area applicants who have Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Haas. It’s important to consider what the school is known for—say, analytics or health care—and how that educational focus will advance their career goals.

Alumni network. Like a program’s strength in an industry, prospective students should research which companies recruit at a school and where alumni land. For example, many Foster grads wind up at Seattle-based companies like Amazon or Microsoft.      

The path to an MBA may take a little longer and there may be more to balance, but the part-time program ends in the same place: Whether you spent 21 months or 3 years completing your MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, it’s an MBA from this No. 7 ranked school.

See how the MBA programs you’re considering landed in Fortune’s ranking of best full-time and online programs.