Acceptance Rates At The Top Online MBA Programs

Which school has the lowest acceptance rate for its online MBA? Cast your eye toward upstate New York to find the answer. File photo

Slowly but surely, online MBA programs are getting more selective.

Online MBAs are their own animal and in many ways not comparable to their full-time residential counterparts: the top online programs, after all, are still nowhere near as hard to get into as the top FT MBA programs. But in the course of gathering data for our annual ranking of online MBA programs, released today (October 14), Poets&Quants found that the online acceptance rate numbers are going down — significantly. While the average rate at the top 10 ranked online MBA programs is 49.2%, and the corresponding rate for the top-ranked full-time programs is 17.5%, the improvement on the online side is marked: Last year when we compiled these numbers, the top 10 online programs had a collective acceptance rate of 52.7%. That’s a 6.6% improvement in one year.

Four of the five hardest online programs to get admitted to are in the 40% range; the one that is most selective of all is an executive-focused program, the Online Executive MBA at the Rochester Institute of Technology Saunders College of Business, where only 30.8% of applicants are admitted. That’s nearly 10 percentage points lower than the next-closest school, the Jack Welch Management Institute, at 40.4%.

Rochester Saunders is ranked 11th overall in our 2020 ranking; the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, ranked 7th overall, is fifth in acceptance rate at 48.6%. The differences between the two extend beyond selectivity: At $78,000, the cost of a Saunders online MBA is nearly $50K less than UNC’s $125,589.


Ash Soni, executive associate dean for academic programs at Indiana University Kelley School of Business, spoke to Poets&Quants in 2018 about the discrepancies between most schools’ online and full-time admissions data. Bottom line: Online programs are picking from a pool of self-selected professionals who already know they “fit” with the programs they’re applying to.

Marty Lawlor. Saunders photo

“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 told P&Q. “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.”

More recently, Marty Lawlor, senior lecturer of marketing and management and director of the Online Executive MBA at the Saunders College, tells P&Q that selectivity first depends on a definition of “selective.”

“For many online MBA programs, selectivity is heavily weighted to GMAT scores and undergraduate GPA,” Lawlor says. “Like many other executive MBA programs, however, we do not require GMATs or GREs. On the other hand, program ‘fit’ is very important to us. We are a relatively small cohort-based program that requires extensive interaction and collaboration. Teams meet multiple times each week, and so we spend significant time up front getting to know applicants during the admissions process and gauging commitment.”

Saunders is also executive-focused, which affects the admissions calculus.

“We are looking for experienced professionals,” Lawlor says. “Twenty hours per week for 17 straight months on top of a full-time job, plus family and personal obligations, tends to be stressful. We look for very busy people who have demonstrated tenacity, and who have shown the ability to succeed in high-stress work environments.”


The two schools that lead the selectivity standings this year made giant leaps to get there. RIT Saunders dropped from 48% last year (still one of the most exclusive online programs) to just over 30%, a 35.8% drop. JWMI did them one-tenth of a percent better, dropping from 63% to 40.4%, a 35.9% decline. UNC Kenan-Flagler also made big strides, reducing its acceptance rate to 48.6% from 61%, a decline of just over 20%.

But all three schools were surpassed by 30th-ranked Tennessee-Chattanooga. The Rollins College of Business last year was tied for the worst acceptance rate among 35 ranked schools, at 92%; this year Rollins shaved that number down to 57.5% — a 37.5% drop.

Overall, 14 of 35 schools lowered their acceptance rates, by a little or by a lot. The average decline among these schools was 13.5%, and seven schools lowered their rates by double-digit percentages. Evidence, Marty Lawlor says, of the increasing competitiveness of online MBA programs.

“The online MBA space is becoming more competitive by the month,” he says. “So it’s hard to predict what the next five years will bring. With that qualifier, we will continue to deliver very applied and experiential programming. Our international client consulting project is a good example of this. With regard to innovation, we think our customized corporate programs (including blended and online formats) are highly distinctive. The learning from these custom programs gives us an early indication of what employers are looking for, and we expect to incorporate some of those practices in our online EMBA program.”

At the other end of the spectrum, 12 schools have 80% or greater acceptance rates. The average increase at the 17 schools that saw jumps was 9.5%. Seven schools had double-digit percentage jumps, led by Lehigh University’s 23.5% increase from 60% to 74.1%, and the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business’ 20.8% increase from 66% to 79.7%. Hofstra University’s Zarb School of Business earned the distinction of highest acceptance rate, at 98.2% — an increase of 14.2% from last year’s 86%.

The 2020 Poets&Quants Online MBA Rankings Package

The Top Online MBA Programs In The U.S. In 2020

Online MBAs With The Best Student Satisfaction Scores

Online MBA Programs With The Best Career Outcomes

The Most & Least Expensive Online MBAs To Make Our 2020 Ranking

Acceptance Rates At The Leading Online MBA Programs

Average GMATs & GPAs At The Top Online MBA Programs

The 2020 Online MBA Ranking: How We Crunched The Numbers

See the next page for a table on the acceptance rates for the last two years at the 35 schools in our annual ranking. 

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