Want to obtain an MBA while working? A part-time MBA program may be right for you

BY Rich GrisetNovember 29, 2021, 2:37 PM
The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in October 2021.
Bing Guan—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you’re thinking about pursuing an MBA part-time, you’re far from alone. According to AACSB International, a business school accreditor and nonprofit association, 62.2% of current MBA students are in a part-time program. 

“They’re hugely popular,” says Caryn L. Beck-Dudley, president and CEO of AACSB International. Fortune’s first-ever ranking of the best part-time programs includes 70 schools, and 46 of the top-ranked full-time business schools offer part-time programs. “More schools have part-time programs, and several schools have actually dropped their full-time programming and just have part-time programs.”

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Why are part-time MBA programs so popular? These programs allow candidates to continue working full-time while pursuing an MBA—and they may be cheaper and have a less competitive applicant pool while still offering the same degree, quality of education, and increased likelihood of career and salary advancement as a full-time program

Is a part-time MBA program right for you? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of this variation on a traditional MBA? Here’s what you need to know.

A degree for the striving professional

Unlike a full-time MBA, which usually schedules classes during weekdays, part-time MBA classes are typically held at night and on weekends so that candidates can pursue their degree while working full-time. And where full-time MBA programs usually take two years to complete, part-time MBA programs take anywhere from two to five years.

“A part-time MBA is just like a full-time MBA, curriculum-wise,” Beck-Dudley says. “In most schools, those curricula are exactly the same.” 

Meanwhile, executive MBA programs—a variant of the part-time MBA—usually hold classes on weekends and involve compressed coursework. EMBA candidates are typically older and further along in their careers than other part-time MBA candidates.

Who are part-time MBA programs built for?

Part-time MBA candidates are generally three to seven years out of undergrad and are looking to advance in their careers while continuing to work their current jobs.

“[Candidates] have been in the workforce for a few years, and they see a need and a value to move to the next level. And for that, they need proper training and experience in the theories and practice of management,” says Rahul Choudaha, industry insights and research communications director for the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a nonprofit association of business schools. Part-time MBA programs “are quite unique in terms of the value proposition that they offer. They are popular for, especially, the early- to mid-career professionals who have been in the workforce for a few years, but want to keep their jobs,” he adds.

According to GMAC’s 2021 prospective students survey, three out of four potential students want to stay on their current career path after obtaining a part-time MBA; the remainder wish to chart a new career path. GMAC’s survey also found that 58% of candidates who selected a part-time program as their preferred program were male, 41% were female, and that more prospective female candidates view a part-time MBA as a way to move up in leadership than do their male counterparts.

Because part-time MBA candidates are usually working full-time, they often attend programs closer to where they live. Full-time MBA programs, on the other hand, regularly field candidates from across the country. “They’re delivering a different level of outcome and meeting a different need,” Choudaha says.

Acceptance, cost, and return

Part-time MBA programs are less competitive to get into than full-time programs, according to GMAC data. In 2020, there was a median of 3.8 applicants per opening in a full-time program versus 1.6 applicants per slot for part-time programs.

Part-time MBA programs give more weight to job experience than test scores or prior GPA compared with full-time MBA programs, Beck-Dudley says. While a full-time or part-time MBA looks exactly the same on paper, she adds that an astute job interviewer can tell the difference on candidates’ résumés by seeing that they held a job at the same time they obtained an MBA. “Oftentimes that’s a benefit, because it shows you can balance a lot of things,” she says.

Beck-Dudley and Choudaha say that potential MBA candidates should research whether a part-time program they’re considering focuses on the industry they’re interested in pursuing, and ensure that they will have access to the school’s career and student services at night. 

Finally, cost is an important consideration. Part-time MBA programs are generally less expensive than their full-time counterparts. AACSB data shows that part-time MBA programs had an average cost of $35,641 for in-state tuition in the 2020–21 school year compared with an average cost of $38,050 for full-time programs. And unlike candidates in a full-time program, part-time candidates won’t forgo a salary while obtaining their degrees.

“For most people, they find the returns well worth it,” Beck-Dudley says. “Because they’re less expensive, your return on investment will come quicker.”

Downsides of pursuing a part-time MBA

As you might expect, working full-time while also pursuing an MBA can be taxing. In addition to balancing work, life, and school stress, planning vacations and enjoying recreational activities can be difficult. Another downside is that students don’t spend as much intensive time with their cohort, making networking more challenging.

“Being an immersive experience, full-time MBA programs clearly have a stronger advantage because you are there much longer to build on-campus and off-campus connections. Part-time programs do serve a good value, but are limited [in their connections],” Choudaha says. “Part-time program candidates have to take extra effort to curate those opportunities.”

Choudaha adds that potential candidates should consider a program’s longevity when researching part-time programs, because older programs will have larger alumni networks.

What does the future hold for the part-time MBA?

In the past, nearly all part-time students had their degrees paid for by their employers. Beck-Dudley says this trend has fallen off in recent years, but some companies will still pay for at least a portion of the degree. According to a 2018 GMAC study, among the part-time MBA class of 2016, 14% of graduates received full tuition support from their employer, and 49% received partial support. Meanwhile, flexible MBAs—where students can move between full-time and part-time programs—are an emerging trend, and Berkeley is a leader in the movement, Beck-Dudley says.

“That will be the future of MBA programs in the United States in particular, where a lot of the programs will be incredibly flexible to meet the working professional,” she says.

If you’re looking for a cheaper and less competitive variant of the MBA that allows you to continue working while you achieve it, a part-time MBA may be the right fit for you.

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