Why Interest In Part-Time MBA Programs Is Sagging

Students in Wake Forest University's part-time MBA program

Students in Wake Forest University’s part-time MBA program

Where’s the bottom?

Applicants and enrollment in the largest segment of the MBA market–those evening part-time programs that allow students to juggle work and study–have been falling for several years. And the decline seems to be accelerating to levels that have deans worried.

More than half of part-time programs reported a decline in applications in 2013, the largest percentage showing downturns in five years, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council.  Some 53% of the business schools said part-time applications were down, compared to 42% a year earlier and 45% in 2009. The smallest percentage in five years–just 29%–reported that their apps were up. That’s a big drop from the previous year when 44% saw some increase.

Surveys of prospective MBA students show that things aren’t expected to improve anytime soon. In fact, the trend line is cause for even more worry and concern. In 2009, 39% of prospects of MBA prospects were interested in a part-time degree, that number fell six percentage points to 33% in 2013, according to a 2014 GMAC survey.

The cause of the dip is hard to pinpoint. Business schools blame it on everything from an uncertain economy and crushing undergraduate debt to the proliferation of online MBA degree programs at ranked business schools. Richard Lyons, dean of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, attributes it to an increasing array of free online MOOC courses and degrees. “It’s getting potential students saying, ‘If I can get big chunks of

that for free, I’ll try it out.’ That is having a transitory effect on part-time programs because people now want to wait-and-see how it works. At the edges, programs that are offering more flexible formats are starting to pull people away.”

Schools Reporting Change In Application Volume

Source: GMAC 2013 Application Trends Survey

Source: GMAC 2013 Application Trends Survey

For many business schools, this is disastrous news. Because of their popularity, part-time MBA programs are among the most lucrative revenue generators for universities. The courses are often taught by a healthy number of adjunct faculty who aren’t paid nearly as much as the tenure-track professors. So the returns on such programs can be significant.

And for students, these programs offer the ultimate flexibility to attend school while still holding down a job and some semblance of a personal life. Part-time MBAs can often stretch out the course requirements over several years, turning up the dial when they have more free time and turning it down when professional and personal issues intervene. That flexibility had made enrollment in part-time programs the single biggest group of students studying for an MBA degree.

Poets&Quants contacted several top schools for their take on the contributing factors and how they’re responding. Here’s what we found:

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management


The Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis

The Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis

The take: Drawing from the many multinational corporations with headquarters in its backyard in Minneapolis, Carlson’s part-time program has long been among the best of breed. Still, applications have been dropping for the past few years, according to Phil Miller, assistant dean of MBA programs. When asked about the future of part-time MBA programs, Miller says it’s tough to tell. “Heavy sigh. We keep hoping to find a bottom. I would say this is it, but this year we continue to be down from last year, and last year we’re down from the year before,” he points out.

Still, it’s not all bad news. Miller points out that applications to Carlson’s full-time MBA program have been up more than 25% for the last two consecutive years. In other words, there’s still demand for business education, but the market is simply fragmenting, he says. Part-time offerings are losing ground to a proliferation of business master’s programs and hybrid formats that blend online and on-campus classes.

Miller compares the situation to football pushing baseball from the No. 1 spot in American sports. “Baseball is still thriving and healthy, it’s just not the national pastime anymore – football is…There’s not something that’s replacing baseball, sports are just fragmenting into various other offerings.” He speculates that rising student debt and waning employer reimbursement are also contributing to declining interest in part-time MBA programs.

The response: Carlson has countered this wave of fragmentation with value-add features like career services and campus life for part-time students hungry for a traditional MBA experience. The business school has also expanded its online options for employed students who are more interested in keeping their careers than hanging out on the quad. After a successful pilot, Carlson will offer one section of all their core courses as well as five elective courses online beginning next fall.

The B-school also launched an MS in analytics this year. “We all used to be able to offer essentially the same vanilla product, and now you can’t. Now you have to be much more tailored and targeted,” Miller says. “It’s not the case that you can just have one thing that makes everyone happy.”

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