The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business topped this year’s Poets&Quants ranking of online MBA programs.
School Rank, Total Cost & Composite Score
* Indicates school did not meet minimum 10% alumni response rate. ** Indicated school did not allow Poets&Quants to survey their alumni.
Source: Poets&Quants analysis
SCHOOLS RANKED ON ADMISSIONS STANDARDS, ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE & CAREER OUTCOMES
In all, 35 U.S. business schools met the criteria to be ranked by Poets&Quants. Those 35 schools completed a highly detailed survey, and all — with the exception of Louisiana State University — allowed us to survey their alumni. Given the relative newness of online degree programs and the lack of resources often devoted to them, many schools do a mediocre job of tracking their alumni and following up with them. That makes effectively surveying alumni more difficult and it’s why these top-ranked schools stand apart from the crowd. Among the 34 schools surveyed, 1,297 out of 7,095 alums responded, for a response rate of a little more than 18%.
Like last year’s debut ranking, schools were measured on three equally weighted parts: admissions standards, an alumni assessment of the program’s academic and extracurricular experience, and career outcomes (see How We Crunched The Numbers).
Among admissions data, we examined the average undergraduate GPAs of students, the average work experience of the most recently accepted class, the acceptance rate for applicants, and average class scores on standardized tests, the GMAT and the GRE. This year we also gave schools credit for enrolling students who did not submit a standardized test but who had 10 or more years of experience, a change from the debut ranking that was made in consultation with several schools. The programs with the highest admissions standards were USC Marshall, Indiana Kelley, Texas Jindal, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Carnegie Mellon.
For the online MBA experience, we relied on alumni answers to 11 questions that probed the essence of their education, from the quality of professors and class projects to their fellow classmates (see How Online MBA Alums Rated Their Schools). Topping the list for the best online academic and extracurricular experience were Hofstra Zarb, the Jack Welch Management Institute, USC Marshall, Auburn, Carnegie Mellon, and Indiana Kelley.
For career outcomes, we asked alums if the program helped them to achieve a salary increase or promotion at work, whether it allowed them to accomplish their primary and secondary professional goals, and how well career services worked on their behalf. USC also showed up at the very top for career outcomes, followed by Hofstra, Texas Jindal, Auburn, Lehigh, and Kenan-Flagler.
USC ALUMS REPORTED THE MOST LIKELY TO GET A PROMOTION AS A DIRECT RESULT OF THEIR MBA
To compile the ranking and help inform applicants’ decisions on which school to attend, we gathered a trove of valuable data. When it came to alumni perceptions of the quality of their professors, for example, no program scored better than the Jack Welch Management Institute, the only ranked Poets&Quants‘ online program not affiliated with a mainstream business school. Alums of the program that bears the name of the legendary CEO of General Electric Co. rated their profs a remarkable 9.74 on a 10-point scale. The faculty at USC and Carnegie Mellon were not far behind, respectively gaining equally impressive scores of 9.52 and 9.48.
USC had the most alums, 64%, who reported receiving a promotion at work as a direct result of the online MBA program. Alums from Welch were next (58%), followed by those at the University of Maryland’s online offering (53%) and that of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (52%). Alums who reported gaining a salary increase as a direct result of their MBA experience topped out at the University of Texas at Dallas (90%), with USC (80%), Indiana Kelley (73%), and Carnegie Mellon (69%) all at the high end of immediate impact.
Of course, one of the big concerns many would-be students have with online programs is the diminished ability to connect with their classmates. Asked about their satisfaction with opportunities to create strong connections with fellow students, the following programs ranked highest: Hofstra (9.79), USC (9.52), Carnegie Mellon (9.43), and Kenan-Flagler (9.19).
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THE TOP 10 ALONE OFFER A VAST ARRAY OF FORMATS AND PRICES
While the ranked schools all offer pure or hybrid online MBAs, they are not all created equal. The top 10 business schools alone offer a bewildering array of online options, with differing price points, program lengths, and approaches. The least expensive of the top 10 costs just $30,240 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where students never meet each other or faculty in person because the program is 100% online, with 10 core courses and six electives that can be completed in as little as one and one-half years or up to 10 full years.
The most expensive program? Carnegie Mellon’s $133,680 hybrid online MBA. While it costs more than $100,000 than the Nebraska option, it’s a three-year program with 18 core courses, including a capstone, and 14 electives, including an on-campus orientation, intensive leadership, and communication coaching and workshops. There are live online classes twice weekly taught by the same faculty who teach in Tepper’s full-time MBA program, and the program also includes Friday-through-Sunday residencies six times a year.
What Nebraska and Carnegie Mellon prove is that not all highly ranked online options are even remotely the same. In general, the least-expensive programs offer the least amount of in-person study. Online MBA students at Auburn, who pay only $34,125 for the experience, are required to come to campus just once at the end of a capstone course. At Indiana University’s KelleyDirect program, which sports a $67,830 pricetag, students can complete the degree in two years during four, 12-week terms taught by the same profs who teach in the full-time program. The vast majority of the work is online in recorded sessions — but there also are a pair of one-week residencies as well as optional global immersion projects that have taken place in such places as Brazil, China, Cuba, India, South Africa, and Thailand.
“Students have enormous options to choose the right program for the best individual fit,” says Idie Kesner, dean of Indiana’s Kelley School of Business. In KellyDirect, the school’s online MBA program that has been offered since 1999, there are a variety of different touch points that supplement the online courses. “Students come back for a residential week each year so that they can network with their fellow students and work on a live case consulting project which is very meaningful,” Kesner says. “It’s something that is valuable to do person-to-person as opposed to simply in a virtual environment. We also allow our online students to travel to different countries with a faculty member to work on projects.”
MORE SCHOOLS ARE JUMPING ON THE ONLINE MBA BANDWAGON
Meanwhile, more and more business schools are offering online options. Every month, yet another highly prominent player jumps on the online bandwagon. Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business just welcomed its first cohort this year. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the highest-ranked U.S. business school to get into the game, has announced plans to launch an online option next fall.
So have University of California-Davis, the first UC-system school to offer an online MBA, and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. UC-Davis is among three new online MBAs being launched by online education provider 2U in 2019, additions that will bring its MBA partners to 10 different schools. Even the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business, which announced the termination of its full-time residential MBA a couple of years ago, recently said it will reintroduce the MBA in an online version in the fall of 2019.
“There is a whole generation of people we are seeing who would rather learn through online than come to classrooms,” says H. Rao Unnava, dean of the business school at UC-Davis. “Online makes a lot of sense for them. There is a large segment of people who would probably want to do their MBA degree online.”
NEARLY 300 ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS IN THE U.S. ALONE
“Technology is changing in ways that have affected many other industries and it’s now starting to affect education,” says Robert Dammon, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “It’s my belief that at some point — and that point is not too far in the future — people will be able to customize their education for what fits their lifestyle best. They may do some online learning. They may do some on-campus learning. They may do an internship on the West Coast and take courses online. They will mix and match what’s best for them at that particular time.”
Already, there are nearly 300 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone at nearly every price point, from the University of Illinois’ highly disruptive $22,000 online offering with Coursera to Carnegie Mellon’s $133,680. “The number of institutions who are going into this marketplace is increasing every day,” says Jim Parrish, director of full-time and online MBAs at Auburn’s Harbert School. “There is a lot of red ocean right now and we need to figure out what the blue ocean strategy is.”
Many of the soon-to-launch online options at big-brand schools will comfortably reach into the six figures, with the University of Michigan expected to price its program at $123,000 for out-of-state students. Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business, is promising a compelling hybrid offering that will lean heavily on experiential learning, just as its full-time residential MBA. “If you’re an online MBA student at Ross, you’re going to engage in a number of residencies, whether it be in Ann Arbor or some place in the world, where you will be working in globally diverse teams, with real companies like Google and Facebook on real problems,” he says. “And you are going to be merging your education with the hands-on, action-based learning that defines a Michigan Ross MBA.”
USC’S DEBUT PROGRAM BUILT FROM VISITING OTHER TOP PROGRAMS
Just about every dean is predicting still more competitors in the marketplace. “The online MBA is only going to improve and increase,” according to Sandra Chrystal, the vice dean for online learning at USC Marshall. “More and more students realize that they can get a high-quality education online. The technology and pedagogy have come together in a way that was not possible ten years ago.”
With a total cost of $105,542, USC’s newfangled online MBA is one of the pricier long-distance options. But with a completion time of 21 months, it’s also one of the shorter programs. Chrystal says the genesis of the program goes back about five years. In 2013, the school started experimenting with online learning, offering some electives to full-time MBA students. And by 2015, the school had its full-fledged online MBA curriculum, developed by a team of top professors from the full-time MBA.
The idea for an online MBA came from Marshall Dean James Ellis. “He felt the time was right and it was important strategically to enter the online MBA space,” says Phil Griego, assistant dean of online learning. The team began having conversations with the online programs already established at USC as well as a few other top online MBA programs. Chrystal visited the administrators of Indiana Kelley’s online program and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
SOME BIG DIFFERENCES IN ONLINE VS. RESIDENTIAL MBA STUDENTS
Kelley does its production in-house, while Kenan-Flagler uses third-party production service 2U. Seeing the difference was influential in the creation of USC’s program. “I really felt the quality of IU Kelley’s production people and working with support of the faculty was very important,” Chrystal recalls. Plus, USC is in the heart of global production. “We already have the video production folks at USC,” Griego points out. The result is an innovative program where data analytics and strategy is incorporated into every class.
While USC’s program is new and built with a Hollywood-esque production standard, second-place Auburn’s online MBA has roots going back nearly 30 years. In 1989, Auburn’s Harbert School began filming full-time MBA courses and sending the videos out via VHS tape, evolving to DVDs before going exclusively online in 2010. According to Stan Harris, associate dean of graduate and international programs at Auburn Harbert, online MBAs in general have surged in popularity over the past five years. “When you first heard ‘online,’ the thought was it was watered-down,” Harris says. “You weren’t getting real faculty or content. It just wasn’t real.” That is no longer true. Today, many programs put their best faculty in their online programs, the same professors who teach in their residential programs.
There are at least two major differences in online MBAs versus full-time residential MBAs. One is the age and work experience of the students, and the second is admissions standards and competitiveness. Consider No. 1-ranked USC Marshall. The acceptance rate for the school’s full-time MBA progrm is 28%; for the online MBA option, it’s 53%. Meantime, average work experience upon entering the program is 11 years for the online version but just five for the full-time residential program. Plus, the average GMAT for the full-time program is 705, but it is more than 50 points lower for the online program at 648.
‘THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THE TERM ONLINE MBA WOULDN’T BE USED DUE TO NEGATIVE CONNOTATIONS’
It’s similar for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The average work experience for the UNC online program is about 10 years versus the five years for the full-time program. The average GMAT for the full-time program is 702; for the online program, it’s 649.
Schools say that because online MBAs typically boast more work experience — often similar to candidates in executive MBA programs — standardized test scores should be less influential in their admissions policies. “The quality of the students we are getting is unquestionable,” Chrystal says, noting that about a quarter of the enrolled students already have advanced degrees. “The students are learning from one another in the classroom as well as from the faculty. The discussions in the classes are rich.”
One thing is certain. Every year, would-be students are likely to have more online options from which to choose and more brand name business schools are expected to enter the space.
“There was a time early on that the term online MBA wouldn’t be used because of the negative connotation,” Auburn’s Harris says. But over the past five years that has changed dramatically as more top-ranked business schools have entered the market. That’s a trend that isn’t likely to end anytime soon.
Admissions Standards At The Top 35 Online MBA Programs
Admissions standards are always less of a hurdle to applicants in online MBA programs compared to their full-time residential counterparts. The acceptance rates are always higher, and at some schools, including the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, had acceptance rates of 92% for the latest intake.
RankSchoolAcceptance RateAverage GPAWork Experience (Years)Average GMATSubmitted GMATAverage GRESubmitted GRE