Full-time vs. part-time MBA: Which one is right for you?

BY Jordan FriedmanNovember 16, 2021, 3:03 PM
Illustration by Martín Laksman

When she decided to pursue an MBA, Ashley Bassman found herself asking an important question: Was she better suited for a part-time or a full-time program?

After a lot of self-reflection, Bassman chose a program where she would attend class two evenings during the week while continuing to work full-time in an e-commerce and digital marketing role at L’Oréal. After several years out of college, Bassman is back in school as a part-time student at the New York University Stern School of Business, and has a goal to one day lead marketing at a larger organization. 

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Prior to her current stint, Bassman worked in tech consulting, after studying information systems as an undergraduate. A full-time MBA would have enabled Bassman to fully immerse herself in her business education and perhaps do an internship, she reasoned. But a part-time program would allow her to keep working and earning a salary, and slowly pivot her career at her current company while earning this degree. Bassman also realized she could apply what she learned in class to her current job.

“I figured, well, if I’m starting to pivot my career in my current industry, [and] I can get a paycheck at the same time and get a formal MBA education, then I think that’s the right path for me,” says Bassman, who expects to graduate in 2024.

For prospective students weighing a part-time versus a full-time MBA, there are a lot of factors to keep in mind. But first, you need to understand the differences between these types of programs.

Comparing program structure

Full-time students often give up their full-time jobs for about two years to completely immerse themselves in an MBA program, so the weekly time commitment for coursework is larger than in a part-time program. These students also typically relocate to live near school, sometimes coming from overseas.

By contrast, part-time students generally take fewer courses each term as they keep working. Classes usually take place on weekends or in the evenings. As a result, part-time, in-person programs generally attract students who live close to campus and can commute. Part-time online MBAs are also an option for students worldwide who crave more flexibility.

According to Barbara Coward, founder of MBA 360° Admissions Consulting, part-time programs are ideal for somebody who says, “You know what? I can’t give up my income; I’ve got a family to support, I’ve got loans to pay off.”

Full-time programs usually last two years, or a total of four semesters, with most students completing an internship in the summer in between. The time it takes to finish a part-time MBA varies, depending on factors such as how many classes a student takes at once and whether they can waive certain classes, Coward says. She estimates that most part-time students take roughly three to four years to complete these programs.

Student goals and outcomes

Full-time MBA programs are usually best suited for career switchers making a big change professionally. These programs are viewed as opportunities for students to reinvent themselves career-wise through experiential learning opportunities, internships, and extracurricular activities.

By comparison, part-time MBA programs draw more career accelerators, or working professionals hoping to advance in their current organization or industry. Those students who take the part-time route tend to have a few more years of work experience on average than full-time students.

A part-time MBA program can be a good option for someone looking to move into a new function in their current industry, or stay in a similar role but move to a different industry, says Joe Stephens, senior assistant dean and director of working professional and executive MBA programs at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

“If I’m looking to change the industry and the function, that feels more like a 180,” Stephens says. “Depending on where you’re at in your career, you’ll really want to think about a full-time program.”

Cost of a full-time vs. part-time MBA

Total tuition in a part-time versus a full-time MBA program at the same university will often be the same or similar, although this can vary. At public schools, part-time students may be more likely to pay the lower-cost in-state tuition given that they are usually based closer to campus.

Most full-time students need to factor into their calculations the cost of housing on or near campus. At the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, tuition for full-time Kelley students—who take courses in Bloomington—includes certain professional development opportunities that aren’t available in the part-time program (with the in-person option based in Indianapolis), says Ash Soni, professor and executive associate dean for academic programs at Kelley.

In general, part-time students may still face program-specific costs. Online students may need to pay a technology fee, for example.

Scholarships for MBA students are also far more prevalent in full-time programs. However, part-time students may be able to ask their employer to cover at least some of their tuition through reimbursement programs.

Money aside, you should also calculate the opportunity cost of enrolling in a part-time versus a full-time MBA program. If you decide to go full-time, remember that you’ll be giving up a paycheck for two years of school. With a part-time program, you can continue working and pay tuition over the course of several years. There are pros and cons to each route.

Networking and internships

While full-time students usually complete internships during the summer months, part-time students continue taking classes and working. The internship can be an integral experience for someone looking to change career paths. Still, part-time students can apply what they learn in the classroom to the workplace.

A full-time program offers more opportunities for making connections outside the classroom. “You have more time to network with the cohort, with alumni, with potential employers,” says Niso Moyo, a full-time MBA candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. For example, Moyo has opportunities to connect with employers as a member of the Management Consulting Group, a club for students interested in pursuing a career in the field.

Similar opportunities are usually still available for part-time learners, and networking is definitely possible. But it’s a bigger part of the day-to-day experience in the full-time MBA program.

Admissions processes and requirements

Acceptance rates are typically much higher in part-time MBA programs compared with full-time programs, Coward says. She acknowledges, however, that this varies overall, and some top-ranked MBA schools are highly competitive regardless of the type of program.

With respect to admissions requirements, part-time programs are generally more relaxed when it comes to GMAT and GRE test scores, Coward says. This may be in part because these applicants tend to have more work experience than their full-time counterparts.

Part-time or full-time MBA? Making a decision

Beyond the financial aspects, Stephens says deciding on a part-time or full-time MBA program also boils down to your passions and what you really want to do in your career.

“It’s hard work to earn an MBA from a top school,” Stephens says. “You want to get the most out of it you possibly can. How good of a time manager are you? What does the support network look like at home, at work?”

Remember that as a part-time student, you’re applying your coursework to real-world workplace situations, but time management can be challenging. In a full-time program, you’ll be fully immersed in the curriculum, but you’re giving up two years of income.

“It really depends on the student, what they’re looking for, and what their career goals are,” Soni says. “So it’s very much an individual type of a decision.”

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