From On-Campus To Online, Big MBA Admissions Differences

Is there a noteworthy difference in value between the MBA you get from two years of on-campus study at an elite university and the one you get online from the same school? The answer is … it’s hard to tell. Most online MBA programs don’t yet offer detailed employment reports, largely because most online MBA candidates are already employed when they start and complete their programs — hence their interest and participation in an online program in the first place. Most are not (necessarily) looking to switch jobs or careers, and even if they did, it’s difficult to quantify how much to credit the MBA they just earned for the new gig they just lined up. Don’t worry, top minds are working on the problem.

In the meantime, just because we can’t answer the question — Is an online MBA as valuable as a two-year, full-time MBA? — doesn’t mean we should stop asking it. The reason we ask is because we know, in very real and quantifiable terms, that online programs are not only much cheaper in general but also much easier to get into. Even the online programs that aren’t cheaper — looking at you, Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC — are easier to get accepted to, based on available data.

A Poets&Quants analysis of the top 25 online MBA programs (as ranked in our inaugural ranking this year) and their full-time counterparts found that at 20 of the 25 schools, the average drop in acceptance rates between online and full-time was 30 points. (Five of the 25 ranked schools were left out of this calculation; one, the Wisconsin MBA Consortium, is online-only; the other four — the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Georgia Southern University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn — have only part-time residential MBA programs.) And those elite schools that can be found high up in both the online and full-time MBA rankings? Not as big a gap, but a considerable one nonetheless: CMU Tepper’s online acceptance rate, for example, is 24 points higher than its on-campus rate (54% versus 30%), while UNC’s online rate is 18 points higher (55% versus 37%). See more data along with the complete ranking on Page 3.

Acceptance rates explain a lot, but we also looked deeper, homing in on two factors impacting those rates: Graduate Management Admission Test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages. And we found that for online programs, average GMATs also lagged far below their full-time brethren — in some cases more than 80 and 90 points below. However, the picture was a little more mixed for GPAs.


Ash Soni. Indiana Kelley photo

Ash Soni, executive associate dean for academic programs at Indiana University Kelley School of Business, can explain the discrepancies between most schools’ online and full-time admissions data. He offered to do so in a phone call with Poets&Quants from the Alliance Manchester Business School in Manchester, England, Kelley’s partner in the Kelley-Manchester Global MBA. Bottom line, says Soni: Online programs are picking from a pool of self-selected professionals who already know they “fit” with the programs they’re applying to.

“Clearly the acceptance rates are higher in the online space, and I think that stems from the fact that online students know what they’re looking for,” Soni says. “They’ve been working for a little longer than the full-time MBA students, and working in the areas of their interest. A lot of them tend to be engineers and scientists who are moving into management-type positions. So they are looking for very specific things, and they tend to engage with us a lot earlier — so they come in and start talking to us about what they’re looking for, and whether our program can deliver what they’re looking for, and so there tends to be a lot more discussion up front with our people. So what happens is, as they talk to us about our program, there’s a lot more self-selection going on, and if the fit is there, they go ahead and apply. If the fit isn’t there, they may be talking to other schools that have a better fit for them. And that explains why the acceptance rates are much higher.”

Kelley’s online program is ranked No. 2 by both P&Q and U.S. News & World Report. Its full-time program is ranked 21st and 27th, respectively. As far as admissions data discrepancies between online and full-time MBA programs, the Bloomington school is unremarkable: a 40-point gap in acceptance rate (75% online, 35% FT), a 38-point gap in average GMAT scores (639 online, 677 FT), and basically identical average GPA scores (3.40 versus 3.38). A similar case can be found at most of the 25 schools ranked by P&Q, and the reason is no mystery to Soni.

“The way the process works, they come in and they inquire and we talk to them,” he says of potential online applicants. “Talking could be as short as 45 minutes or an hour, or it can linger on for several days — they may want to come back and talk to a faculty member or department of their interest. So it tends to be a little more prolonged, and these students tend to know what they’re looking for. And if the fit is there, they go ahead and apply. So the number of applications tend to be fewer that way, and the acceptances tend to be higher, because they’ve already gone through that self-selection process.”


Soni notes that a real difference between schools’ online programs is in volume of GMAT scores submitted. For Indiana Kelley, 86% of online applicants submitted GMATs; for rival UNC, only 14% did. And the numbers fluctuate wildly throughout the P&Q ranking. At No. 1 CMU Tepper, 88% of applicants submit GMAT scores; at No. 8, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management, only 23% do. No. 5 North Dakota gets GMATs from 72% of applicants, but No. 12 University of Delaware Lerner College of Business and Economics only gets them from 7%. Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, at No. 16, doesn’t require them at all. Nor does the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business (No. 13), the Ohio University College of Business (No. 15), or the College of Business at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (No. 24).

Speaking of Northeastern, the biggest drop in acceptance rate from online to full-time among the 25 schools ranked by P&Q was a 53-point differential at D’Amore-McKim (88% to 35%), followed by a 52-point drop at UMass-Amherst (85% to 33%). Leaving out the aforementioned five schools with no full-time MBA program, the smallest drop-off was at Louisiana State’s Ourso College of Business, with identical 55% acceptance rates; Southern Illinois had a 9-point difference, 80% for online versus 71% for full-time, and the University of Texas-Dallas Jindal School of Management — ranked No. 4 by P&Q and No. 6 by U.S. News — had a 10-point difference, 34% to 24%. (Texas’ 34% acceptance rate for its online MBA is also the lowest rate for any of the 25 ranked online programs.) Only one school had a higher acceptance rate for its full-time program than its online one: the University of North Dakota, where 79% of online MBA students were accepted from last fall’s applicant pool while 90% of full-time MBA students were admitted. But North Dakota only has nine students in its full-time MBA.

The lowest acceptance rate for a full-time program among the top 25 schools ranked for their online MBA? The University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business, at 14.9%. But Florida Hough’s online MBA, ranked No. 3 by P&Q and No. 6 by U.S. News, had a 46% acceptance rate — a difference of 31 points, one more than the average for the entire ranking.

Looking at the rest of the top 10 can be more illuminating than a broader view of all 25 schools, chiefly because there is a huge amount of real-life and real-data separation between No. 2 Indiana Kelley, for example, and the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University, ranked No. 22. But here again we see a major, if not as pronounced, gap: The average acceptance rate for the top 10 online MBA programs is 63%; for their full- and part-time counterparts, 37%, a difference of 26 points.

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