What do the best online MBA programs have in common?

BY Anna-Louise JacksonJune 11, 2021, 3:00 AM
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In the 30-plus years since the first online MBA program debuted, the idea of attending class virtually has gone from a novelty to downright typical. And these days, prospective students interested in pursuing an MBA have hundreds of online programs to choose from.

There are plenty of differences to be found among the 104 schools that participated in Fortune’s first-ever ranking of the nation’s best online MBAs. These programs span 35 different states and the District of Columbia; the group includes both public and private institutions; and admissions requirements can vary significantly. 

No matter which program you enroll in, you can expect some similarities, however: a core lineup of courses, group projects or exercises, and some shared career goals with fellow classmates. But what makes some programs stand out from the crowd is their ability to attract a competitive cohort of students who, as important, remain enrolled and go on to build an influential alumni network that in turn attracts the attention of recruiters.

Here, in greater detail, is what this year’s best online MBA programs have in common.

A competitive admissions process

The best programs typically attract the best students. The top 10 schools in this year’s Fortune ranking admitted students with both higher average undergraduate GPAs and higher GMAT scores than those of students admitted to the broader group of online MBA programs.

For example, consider Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. These two programs had the two highest average GMAT scores for admitted students—674 and 670, respectively. By comparison, the overall average score for all of the programs in the ranking was about 528, while the average among all test takers is 565

Relatedly, it’s perhaps not surprising that the acceptance rate at top online MBA programs is lower than the 70% average, as reported by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). For example Carnegie Mellon accepted less than 30% of applicants in 2020, while the acceptance rate at the USC Marshall School of Business was 34%. 

Bigger online MBA programs

Total enrollment grew more than 16% between 2019 and 2020 at the 104 schools that participated in Fortune’s ranking process. Of course, that’s not a universal phenomenon, with some schools reporting gains in enrollment and others reporting declines.

While bigger isn’t always better, it does offer students the opportunity to take part in that all-important MBA program ritual: networking. Bigger programs will introduce you to more classmates who could go on to become future business partners. 

The top 10 online MBA programs in Fortune’s ranking reported current enrollments that were more than double that of the other 94 schools. And the two biggest online programs by enrollment ranked second and ninth—Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

One way that MBA programs are able to easily expand enrollment is by offering multiple cohorts. Doing so allows students to apply—and then begin school—at the time of year that makes the most sense for them. It’s common for most MBA programs to offer two to three different cohorts throughout the year, though there are some schools that have only one.

And some schools have even gone the route of four start dates throughout the year, including UNC Kenan-Flagler and Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. Both schools have online MBA cohorts that begin in January, April, July, and October. 

Higher retention and graduation rates

To get the most out of those networking opportunities and various cohorts, it’s important that your classmates stay enrolled—and go on to graduate from the program. The one-year retention rate among all of the top programs is above 90%, whereas that rate falls to 85%, on average, for the remainder of schools reporting this data. 

Similarly, the average graduation rate among the top programs was 82%, and fell to 74% for the remainder of schools reporting this data. Carnegie Mellon and Rice University, for example, both reported graduation rates in excess of 95%.

Finally, where MBA grads end up may be important when you’re considering different programs. Tapping into those alumni networks can help you break into desirable companies, which is why part of this year’s ranking took into account how many alumni from each school (regardless of the type of program) are executives at Fortune 1000 companies. Notably four of the top-ranked schools have the most Fortune 1000 alums in C-suite positions.

Where the top online MBA programs differ

Of course, for all of the similarities among the top ranked MBA programs, there also are plenty of differences. And, yes, you probably guessed it: Costs can vary. You could graduate with an MBA that costs about the same as a new car–or slightly more than the average salary you might aspire to earn following graduation.

For example, the difference between the tuition at the most expensive program in the top 10 (Carnegie Mellon) and the least expensive (UMass) is about $100,000. And at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz School of Business you can expect to pay different amounts depending on whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student.