Time, money, and flexibility: What you need to know about 12-month MBA programs

BY Sam BeckerNovember 30, 2021, 2:15 PM
Illustration by Martin Laksman

The prospect of better jobs, better titles, and, of course, better pay is on the other side of an MBA program. But earning that degree can be an arduous process, and one that generally takes at least a couple of years to complete and a significant investment—both in terms of money and time. 

The average cost of earning an MBA ranges anywhere from $60,000 to $200,000, though some students face the prospect of shelling out up to $100,000 per year to go to business school. With that in mind, wouldn’t it make sense to buckle down and complete a program in a shorter time period?

There is an option: The 12-month MBA. Or, more specifically, an MBA that can be completed in as few as 12 months. There are business schools out there that offer them—mostly through their online MBA programs—and for some students, the option can be incredibly attractive as a way to save time and, potentially, a lot of money. Here’s what to know.

‘The new iteration of business school programs’

Prior to the pandemic, many MBA programs were expected to start rolling out shorter-duration options to give students the chance to join or rejoin the workforce faster and to save on tuition costs. And while some schools did open up 12-month MBA programs, most have not done so yet.

“Twelve-month programs were supposed to be the new iteration of business degree programs, but it never really materialized” in a big way, says Esther Magna, the principal MBA admissions consultant at Stacy Blackman Consulting, a company that helps prospective MBA students gain access to their target schools. 

That’s not to say that the demand isn’t there, Magna adds. In response, some top-ranked MBA programs, like Cornell University (Johnson) and Northwestern University (Kellogg), have added 12-month MBA options. But many students have continued to opt for traditional, two-year programs instead—and for good reason. 

“The reason why 12-month programs are not in demand at nearly the level of a traditional two-year program is that the value of an MBA education is almost always through the transformative nature of a two-year experience, including active student collaboration and engagement in the community,” Magna notes.

In other words, spending more time in a program—developing contacts, working with potential future colleagues, and participating in internships and on-site projects—is more valuable for many students than the potential savings they might see by enrolling in a program that can be completed in less time.  

Essentially, it boils down to opportunity costs: Students can spend more time in their respective two-year program, which could lead to bigger or better career prospects, or they can try to finish up their degree posthaste and save on tuition.

The nuts and bolts of 12-month MBA programs

For those students who opt for a 12-month online MBA program, it’s important to realize that many of these programs’ timelines are not set in stone. So, you may set out thinking you’ll be done in a year, but end up finishing 18 months later.

At Boise State University, for example, nearly 27% of students graduate from the school’s online MBA program within one year. A majority, around 74%, do so within two years, says Ally Daniels, director of professional, online, and JD/MBA programs at Boise State University. 

A big reason why many students end up taking more time to finish their degree is that they underestimate just how much work it will be, especially if they’re still trying to work or have family obligations at home. An MBA program is “a full-time job,” says Daniels. “It’s 40 or 50 hours per week of work.”

And at some schools, the chips need to fall in a certain way to ensure that a 12-month program can actually be completed within a one-year time frame. “Students can complete the program in 12 months if they don’t pursue a concentration—or, serendipitously, if their concentration courses line up in the right way,” says Cathy DuBois, associate dean of graduate and online programs at Kent State University.

That said, for Kent State’s online MBA program, “most of our students do it in 12 months,” DuBois adds. 

But overall, students are looking for a few key elements. “There are three things that attract people to a program,” says DuBois. And those are time, money, and flexibility.

As mentioned, opportunity costs are also important to consider. Students may earn a degree quicker and pay less for tuition, but getting out of school also means they forgo internships, study abroad opportunities, and the ability to network. “It works both ways, as does everything in life,” says DuBois, adding that students need to weigh the pros and cons of a 12-month program. “Graduate school is a big investment of time and money, and students need to find the program that fits what they want.”

What to consider before signing up for a 12-month MBA program

If you’re debating between a two-year and one-year MBA program, consider the following:

Time management: How much time can you devote to your studies? Because an MBA program is tantamount to a full-time job, if a student can’t carve out 40 hours per week to study, a longer program may be a better option.

Can you be efficient? Students who work full-time will need to figure out how and when they can study and complete their coursework. Daniels says that some Boise State students, who often have long commutes, have taken to listening to the audio versions of their textbooks while driving, for example. 

Think about others: One big consideration for prospective MBA students is thinking about how the time commitment will affect their relationships with family members, friends, and coworkers. 

Make sure the program is relevant: Students should think about whether an MBA program will actually help their careers, and as such, if it’s worth the investment. If you’re getting an MBA just to get an MBA, you may want to reconsider or think more deeply about how the degree will help you progress. 

With all this in mind, a 12-month program can offer something of a business school shortcut. But it will be important to make the most of that time because you’ll miss out on more opportunities to make contacts and gain valuable experience through an internship.

If the time crunch of a condensed MBA program is simply too much, taking advantage of an online MBA’s flexibility may be the best route. After all, there’s no reason to wear yourself out to pursue a degree in under 12 months—especially if nobody’s counting.

“It’s about the MBA program and what you’re getting out of it. It’s about the fact that you’re investing your time and effort,” says Daniels. “Nobody’s giving you an award for completing it in a year.” 

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