What the surge in online MBA programs means for business schools

BY Meghan MalasApril 08, 2022, 12:33 PM
Outside the NYU Stern School of Business in Manhattan.
Outside the NYU Stern School of Business in Manhattan.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The number of online MBA degree programs has surged in recent years, and while pandemic-related factors are responsible for some of this growth, the lower cost and flexibility that online programs typically offer have also contributed to the format’s popularity. Being able to work full-time while going to business school is another advantage, as students don’t have to forgo their salary and can apply what they learn in real time.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, online MBA programs were growing in popularity. The number of accredited U.S. schools with fully online MBA programs increased from 284 to 526 between the 2016–17 and 2020–21 academic years, according to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. That’s an 85% increase. 

What’s driving the steep demand for online MBA programs? And has this growth continued since the first year of the pandemic? Fortune spoke with officials from two top-ranked business schools that recently expanded online options for their MBA programs to learn how and why virtual programs have become so popular. 

Business schools must offer flexibility to be competitive

“When we speak with prospective applicants about NYU Stern’s part-time MBA program, one of the first things we always emphasize is flexibility,” says Isser Gallogly, associate dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern School of Business.

In November 2021, Stern became the first among the top 10 business schools in Fortune’s ranking to launch a hybrid MBA program. Students in Stern’s online/modular part-time option can complete the core MBA curriculum online, and then complete a portion of their elective courses in person in New York City, through modules, weeknight classes, or Saturday classes.

“Adapting, aligning with a changing workplace, and meeting the changing needs of working professionals is a top priority for us,” Gallogly says. The program’s launch was particularly timely and relevant, given the rise of hybrid work and increased demand for the ability to customize the MBA experience for work and life, he adds. 

A similar demand was surfacing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School for several years before the university decided to offer an online executive MBA option for students. 

“The greatest limitation to any executive MBA program, whether it is online or in person, is the students’ time,” says Jaclyn Conner, associate dean of Goizueta’s executive MBA program. “Students are pressed for time, and their encounters in the program, regardless of format, have to be maximized.”

Goizueta announced the launch of the online executive MBA in February 2022. The program, which requires applicants to have eight years of work experience and to be employed in a full-time role, is the first of its kind offered by a top-ranked school. 

“We have become an on-demand culture that expects fewer boundaries as it relates to space and time,” Conner says. “Educational experiences are no different.”

One of the most attractive aspects of online MBA degree programs is that they allow professionals to apply what they learn in real time. While the pandemic certainly affected the jump in demand for online learning, it also changed many other workplace factors. Being able to learn business and management strategies while witnessing these changes simultaneously is a big selling point for online MBA programs.

“These students are navigating an ever-changing business landscape and must have options for their learning experiences,” Conner says. 

Interest in online MBA programs is slowing

In 2020, 80% of schools reported growth in the number of applications to their online MBA program, according to the 2021 Application Trends Survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council. But this growth has slowed significantly; in 2021, only 30% of schools reported growth in applications to their online programs.

However, the ability to elevate your career and pay without putting your life completely on hold remains attractive to many professionals, and the pandemic emphasized a need for more flexibility. While applications for fully online programs aren’t growing the way they did in years prior, Stern is among many business schools that are incorporating more online elements into their existing programs.

“Our objective was to continue to enhance the flexibility of our existing part-time MBA program,” Gallogly says. “So our aim with the launch of this new option was never to try to create some sort of online MBA program; we feel the in-person experience is integral to the NYU Stern part-time MBA program.”

In addition to the new online format, Goizueta also offers on-campus and hybrid options for its executive MBA. Allowing for different degrees of flexibility within the program is a key part of meeting the demands of prospective students. 

“In most conversations with applicants, they already know what option is most suitable for their work, life, and learning needs,” Conner says. The decision is not about opportunity, networking, or class content, as the same resources are available to all students, she adds, it is primarily about what type of learning environment is best for the student.

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