Uncovering the real cost of an online MBA (and we aren’t just talking money)

BY Nicole Gull McElroyApril 28, 2021, 3:00 AM
Martin Laksman

When Corey Kilcourse began the online MBA program at William & Mary in 2017, he knew it would cost him money, time, and general wear and tear on his work/home/life balance. What he didn’t know was that it would also be an exercise in the mental gymnastics of time management, workflow, and logistics. 

Kilcourse, who lives with his family in southern Connecticut and commutes into Manhattan for his job on an investment team at Allianz, says pursuing the degree online “allowed me to keep my job, deal with the stress and strain, keep my income, and improve myself all at the same time.” 

He travels a lot for work, which also factored into Kilcourse’s decision. “If I did this at 26, maybe I’d have left my job, but my analysis was this: I had a good career and didn’t want to leave it. I also started the program with two kids, and by the time I’d finished, we had three. Going online allowed me to have the least impact on my family unit.”

There is plenty to consider in pursuing an advanced degree as an adult. For most, cost is front and center in choosing a program, and “cost,” as Kilcourse attests, can mean money, time, and opportunity. 

Steven Savino, assistant dean for graduate programs at Lehigh University’s College of Business, urges prospective students to consider all of those aspects when pursuing an MBA. “As a working professional, you can cram in only so much,” he says. The expenses and investments involved in the process are significant and land in different proportions for every student, he adds.

Out-of-pocket costs

The most obvious cost is the financial investment. While Kilcourse self-funded his MBA, not everyone can afford it, or even needs to, especially if an employer will do that for you. The price point for any given online MBA can vary depending on a school’s brand power and offerings. 

Enroll in the Kenan-Flagler program at the University of North Carolina, and you’ll be down more than $125,500. The W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University costs roughly $61,500. Boston University recently announced its new online MBA will come in at just less than $24,000. 

It’s a good idea to check in with your employer to see what relationships or policies might be in place to offset or possibly eliminate financial costs associated with your program. Some companies work directly with specific schools, while others reimburse up to a certain amount, if not the entire cost, of tuition. In 2019, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 92% of organizations surveyed in the U.S. and Canada offered some amount of education assistance, tuition reimbursement, or student loan repayment benefits. 

Meanwhile, military employees can count on tuition reimbursement under various government programs or the post-9/11 GI Bill (which for 2019–20 covered all tuition and fees for public school and up to $24,000 at private or foreign schools). U.S. tax code caps tuition reimbursement at $5,250 per semester, and depending on where you go, that could pay for one or two courses a semester. Any amount above that $5,250 would be considered income and, therefore, taxable.

The time you’ll spend

While the MBA curriculum is generally designed to be completed in two years, a lot of schools allow up to five years, depending on the pace of coursework. Lehigh’s Steven Savino says its program is like so many others: technically hybrid, but offered 100% online and includes students who never set foot on its Pennsylvania campus. Some students live closer to campus and come to the classroom when their schedule allows, and then attend class remotely for the remainder of the term. That setup isn’t uncommon at all; so the term “online” can be used broadly.

“You go at your own pace, in what sequence you like,” Savino says. “Our students are working. They have a life outside the classroom. We have been doing it for years like this in a hybrid setting. In any given class, there is one student who one week is in the class and another in a hotel room, and then another student who completes the whole program living and working in San Francisco.” 

Kilcourse says he spent one extended weekend at William & Mary during the two-year course of his MBA work. The remainder was spent juggling assignments, class, family life, and his career from home in the Connecticut burbs, in airports, on planes, in hotel rooms, on Metro-North commuter trains into and out of Manhattan, and in his Midtown office. 

“I definitely learned a lot in the program, and it further helped me with time management,” says Kilcourse. “It is no joke. Having to look at your life and figure out where you’ll get these hours to study and get the work done—I continue to utilize those skills.”

Opportunity: What you’ll miss, what you’ll gain

Some aspects of an online MBA might not become clear until you’re mid-program. “You think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be great. I can do the work whenever I want,’” says Kilcourse, noting the assumption that asynchronous class would make life easier, more flexible. In some ways it did: Instead of driving to and from class or being fixed to a twice-weekly, three-hour class period, he could pitch in on kids’ bedtimes and then later in the evening shift into student mode, or utilize hotel or airport hours while traveling to bang out assignments. 

Still, that required forethought. In a seven-week course, Kilcourse says, he’d regularly look at his schedule two weeks in advance and see what work he could do ahead of work travel or client dinners. 

On one occasion, Kilcourse recalls he was traveling to the Middle East for work and was able to coordinate with his professor to complete an exam before he left so his workweek abroad could be singularly focused on his job. Other times, Kilcourse would skip the glass of wine at client dinners so he could finish schoolwork or post to class discussions late at night in his hotel room. Coordinating group work online with students in different time zones with disparate work and family demands also proved challenging. 

Finally, if you’re looking to use your MBA to change industries or shift your career trajectory, networking is certainly something to consider. If not, and an MBA is more about filling in some holes in your education or checking a box should you plan down the line to change companies, that may be less of a concern. There’s a different level of effort in terms of connecting with peers after class if everyone’s walking out of the same room, headed to the same bar or coffee shop to catch up, than if you’re all working from your laptops in different states and circumstances across a Wi-Fi connection. Consider what schools offer in terms of bolstering your network. 

For Kilcourse, the hoops were worth the jump. “I learned a lot about myself,” he says. “If you can do this with two kids, keep your job, and all of the other things you bellyache about…you’ve got to figure it out. You go into it thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ But then you do. I would do it again.”