U.S. News Ranks Online MBA Programs

In a new ranking bound to ignite plenty of controversy, U.S. News & World Report yesterday (Jan. 14) ranked online MBA programs for the very first time. And the winner, according to U.S. News, is quite a shocker: It’s Washington State University which fails to crack any top 100 list of the best full-time MBA programs.

Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, an early pioneer in the field which has had an online MBA program since 1999, finished third. Not on the list at all is the highest ranked business school with an online MBA, the Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA@UNC. Yet, U.S. News numerically ranked 148 different online MBA programs.

The absence of what many educators would agree is the best online MBA program is a result of the UNC’s decision not to participate in the ranking. Each ranked school had to complete a lengthly survey from U.S. News filled with data about its program, but UNC officials took issue with the magazine’s ranking and methodology. Some 213 other schools did not share UNC’s qualms and participated.


“The rankings make perfectly good sense if we’re talking about football teams because all football teams try to do the same things,” says Douglas A. Shackelford, associate dean of MBA@UNC. “But the missions, goals and aspirations of these schools and our programs are different. It’s like saying Alabama’s football team is better than Berkeley’s golf team.”

Online MBA programs are still relatively new and most of the early players are generally not among what is commonly known as the best business schools. The more prominent players in business education largely steered clear of online education because it was more often than not the province of for-profit institutions that offerred mediocre MBA programs. Many of the premium branded MBA schools felt that online versions of their MBA degrees would taint their reputations.

Until UNC entered the market two years ago, the only Top 20 player was Indiana. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School is now accepting applications for an online MBA program that will enter its first class in the fall of 2013 (see Carnegie Mellon Enters The Online MBA Market). Kenan-Flagler, which currently has 323 online MBA students, will graduate its first MBA@UNC class this July. “When we are competing for students to our online program we have not had a discussion with any applicant who has considered any online program other than Indiana,” added Shackelford.


So after the surprising first-place finish by Washington State in Pullman, which charges $29,250 for its online MBA, there’s No. 2 Arizona State University’s Carey School, No. 3 Indiana’s Kelley School, the No. 4 University of Florida’s Hough School, and No. 5 California State University at Fullerton.

Not every dean pooh-poohed the new ranking. “We’re extremely happy to see U.S. News confirm we have one of the world’s best online MBA programs,” says Robert Mittelstaedt, dean of the W. P. Carey School of Business, in a statement. “Increasingly, students are looking for the flexibility of an online program, but they don’t want to sacrifice the high quality of a top university. The W. P. Carey School was one of the first highly respected schools to get into the online arena – more than a decade ago — and we offer the same stellar faculty and degree in our online program as we offer in all of our other highly ranked MBA programs.”

In cranking out its ranking, U.S. News collected a wealth of data from the schools, the most comprehensive data set on online MBA degrees ever published, including acceptance rates and GMAT scores, which are rarely made public by the schools. The numbers show that even the highest ranked online programs are not very selective. One top 20 school, the University of North Texas, admitted to accepting 100% of its applicants. The University of Connecticut at Stoors, ranked eighth, and Arkansas State, ranked 11th, both accept 91% of their applicants.

UNC’s acceptance rate, in contrast, ranges between 40% and 55%, depending on the admission cycle. A spokesperson notes that admissions, however, does a lot of pre-application counseling that impacts the number of applications it receives. Nearly one in four of the MBA@UNC students already have graduate degrees and they average 7.7 years of work experience.

Meantime, the average GMAT score for the latest enrolled online class at Central Michigan University, which was ranked sixth, was a meager 495, according to U.S. News. The most selective program, based merely on the percentage of applicants accepted, was at Georgia College and State University, which  told U.S. News it accepted 39% of its applicants. Indiana University reported the highest average incoming GMAT scores for students: a highly respectable 682.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks very much for that explanation. It’s very helpful to our readers. We’ll be looking into the program and will report on it shortly.

  • Cougar Master

    Your leading premise against the US News & World Report ranking of the best online MBA programs is flawed and could have easily been corrected by a little research.

    Washington State University could not appear in a normal MBA ranking, because the college ceased its on-campus MBA program in 2009. WSU’s business program is handicapped by the fact that Pullman is a very isolated, rural location. The geographic qualities that make it a top 20 school of Agricultural Engineering and Veterinary Science work against it as a business school located 250 miles from Seattle. Therefore, the faculty changed strategy and sought to redirect its resources to creating a top MBA program for the emerging online education market, which it did successfully. Within two years of its debut, WSU shot past schools that had been in the online MBA market for a long time, like Auburn and Arizona State, and captured the #1 spot. If that is a “shocker” it is only because the WSU MBA strategy was well devised and executed.

    Instead, the main on-campus WSU MBA program shifted to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area for an evening, professional MBA program that competes with Portland State and University of Portland to meet the regional demand from local companies like Nike, Addidas, Intel, Daimler Trucks, etc, for MBAs. However, now that WSU has established itself firmly in the online space, it will be introducing a revised one-year, full-time MBA program in Pullman that leverages the school’s highly ranked computer science programs to provide a high quality concentration in data analytics.

    Washington State University adapted to the times by redirecting the efforts of an outstanding business faculty to reinventing the online MBA and it achieved that, based on the U.S. News rankings. It deserves its place as the #1 Online MBA program in the USA. Readers should check it out. Poets&Quants should publish an apology.

  • Shaniqua “La Bootay” James

    Why wouldn’t the acceptance rate for an online MBA be100%?

  • johnson bound

    Indiana’s enrollment number matches their avg GMAT – highly respectable indeed.

  • JD

    What about the Fuqua Cross-Continent MBA? I thought the MBA@UNC followed a similar format. Distance pre-work,immersion, then distance post-work… I believe the MBA@UNC flips it and does the immersion at the end of a quarter, but still, the same concept applies. Am I mistaken? Fuqua’s CCMBA is never mentioned when folks discuss online MBAs. I’ve always wondered why…?

  • Thank you for this! Great read. Just wanted to point out a typo though: “In cranking out its ranking, U.S. News collected a wealth of data from the schools, the most comprehensive data set on online MBA degrees ever published, including acceptance rates and GMAT schools….”. I think you meant “scores”.