Once you’ve defined the online MBA program model that aligns best with your goals (see Part One of this series), it’s time to find which business schools offer the best version of this model for you. To help build and prioritize your target list, here’s some actionable advice from The MBA Exchange, based our experience advising over 5,000 MBA applicants over the past three decades.
- Is the school’s “academic calendar” right for your schedule?
Even schools with an identical online MBA program model can have very different start and end dates for their students. When comparing various academic calendars, consider any foreseeable obligations and commitments – either personal or professional – that could conflict with the school’s mandatory sessions, testing dates or official activities. Next, check in advance with your employer, family and friends as to when you would be unavailable to them due to education demands. Yes, the unexpected can happen even if you plan ahead, but anticipating and avoiding predictable conflicts will make earning your online MBA far less stressful. So, consider programs with calendars that align best with your plans.
- What is the school’s ranking and accreditation?
Graduating from an academic institution that has a respected reputation, national or international recognition, and an esteemed brand can enhance your career advancement, mobility and earning power throughout your lifetime. Factors to consider include published rankings, official accreditation, faculty credentials, and alumni success.
There are at least a dozen publications and websites, such as Poets & Quants (P&Q), that rank “the best” online MBA programs. Given significant variances in their methodology, precision and motivation, it’s important to understand how the sources develop their rankings.
When assessing the rank of any online program, keep in mind the reputation of the university’s full-time, on-campus MBA, which typically has higher visibility and greater impact on the school’s overall brand. That said, only four of P&Q’s top 10 online programs are offered by business schools that also have top 25 full-time programs: University of Southern California, Indiana University, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of North Carolina.
Accreditation is the “seal of approval” that vets academic programs for prospective students and their employers. However, don’t assume consistency in standards as there is a variety of accrediting agencies in the marketplace. The best known is AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business). For more than a century, this global non-profit has endorsed only those schools that meet its strict criteria for excellence. Currently, AACSB accredits just 845 MBA programs worldwide, including approximately 100 online programs.
Non-AACSB schools may be accredited through other sources. These organizations include the ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs) which endorses more than 60 online MBA programs. In addition, there are six regional accrediting bodies across the United States. Other organizations that assess online MBA programs at schools located outside the US include AMBA (Association of MBAs) and Equis (European Quality Improvement System).
- How affordable is the school’s online MBA program?
Choosing a program within your budget could make attendance less stressful and even allow you to graduate debt-free. The price tag for an online MBA degree can quickly narrow your school options. Tuition varies dramatically across programs.
For example, among the top 10 online MBAs ranked by Poet and Quants, prices range from $30,240 at University of Nebraska-Lincoln up to $132,000 at Carnegie Mellon University. Furthermore, the highest-ranked programs are not necessarily the most expensive. According to Poets and Quants, #2 Auburn University is priced at $34,125 while #25 George Washington University charges $101,887.
Variables that influence the cost of enrollment include program duration, private vs. public institutions, online vs. residential content, and real-time vs. asynchronous delivery. An additional, out-of-pocket expense to consider is travel. Unless you reside near campus, transportation and housing for residential sessions can become significant. Furthermore, many online MBA programs feature career treks across the country or overseas to enhance the educational experience.
There are ways to help cover the cost of your online degree. Schools typically offer need-based and merit-based financial aid. Government-subsidized and private loans can spread tuition expense over several years. In addition, many employers provide tuition reimbursement to employees as an incentive to remain with and advance at the company.
- Who would you like to be your fellow classmates and alumni?
Building a professional network is important, today and in the future. Even though schools deliver most, or sometimes even all, of the online MBA education virtually, it’s still essential to assess the school’s current and past attendees. Do they have jobs in the companies or industries that appeal most to you? Are their pre-MBA backgrounds similar or complementary to yours? Some student and alumni profiles are typically available on school websites. Searching public profiles on LinkedIn can give you even more detail.
School websites often list MBA alumni chapter contacts who can help you understand how their network supports students and graduates of online programs in career advancement, professional development and social interaction. So, consider the size, agenda, and culture of alumni chapters since this affiliation can become a life-long asset for you.
- How can a given business school benefit your near- and long-term career?
Would you like to change your function or industry and make yourself more attractive to future employers? Or do you want to accelerate growth in your current position? Launch your own business? In any of these cases, a school’s Career Services can be an invaluable and enduring resource for students and alumni.
This support can include individualized coaching, resume editing, corporate recruiting, and job fairs. Furthermore, some schools offer their online students access to company information sessions, site visits, and alumni mentors. Many schools publish annual Employment Reports based on survey responses from their new graduates and experienced alumni. These publications provide hard data on hiring and compensation, by function and industry, to help you compare the projected impact of a degree from each of your prospective schools.
When assessing the career support at a given school, also consider faculty credentials in your chosen industry, elective courses that align with your goals, and student clubs specializing in your field.
Finally, don’t totally disregard location. Even if a particular MBA program is 100% online, most of its students live and work within a day’s driving distance of the campus. Campus location can influence awareness of the school’s brand, in-person engagement with alumni, and appeal to recruiters.
By defining your personal and career goals, determining your ideal MBA program model, and thoughtfully answering the five questions above, you can build a target list of schools that should serve you best. In the final installment of this three-part series, I’ll suggest strategies and tactics that maximize your chances for admission to the online programs that are most attractive to you.
Julie Strong is a Master Consultant at The MBA Exchange. Former Senior Director of MBA Admissions at the MIT Sloan School of Management for 12 years, Julie subsequently served as Director of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office. She has evaluated thousands of MBA applications and conducted in-person interviews worldwide. More recently Julie was founding Director of Admissions for the Asia School of Business, a collaboration between MIT Sloan and the Central Bank of Malaysia. She has served on boards of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC); Education Testing Service (ETS); and Forté Foundation. Julie created and led the career development office for the school of management of a major management consulting firm. She earned a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.