While applications and enrollments in full-time MBA programs have declined for five consecutive years, demand for online MBAs has exploded. More than 300 business schools in the U.S. alone now offer online MBA options and scarcely a month goes by when yet another program pops up. This fall alone, the University of Michigan and UC-Davis are among the newcomers who have welcomed their first cohorts of students. In less than four years, the $22,000 iMBA from the University of Illinois’ Gies School of Business has boosted enrollment to more than 2,500 online students from 114 students.
How to make sense of this vastly expanding market? For the third year in a row, Poets&Quants is ranking the best of the bunch: 35 quality online MBAs that offer students an exceptional educational experience. This year, there’s a new winner, though a familiar one that has risen to the top. After dipping to fourth place last year, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business regained first place in our annual ranking of the best online MBAs in the U.S. Tepper topped the inaugural list three years ago. The school’s part-time hybrid program includes live online sessions, in-person weekends, and traditional online course structures and is also the most expensive online program in the world with a $137,200 price tag.
The high price and the unusually high amount of face-to-face contact in Tepper’s program make it something of an anomaly. Tepper’s program, in fact, reinforces the notion that not all online programs are created equal. Many have no in-residence sessions. Some don’t even have live Internet classes. Others offer little career development guidance. So it’s important to look beyond a school’s rank or price to decide whether you are a fit for any of these online options.
Yet, when it comes to the absolute quality of an online MBA experience, the Poets&Quants‘ ranking is an ideal guide for prospective students who don’t want to quit their jobs but want this quintessential business credential. Following Tepper on this year’s list is Indiana University’s Kelley Direct Online MBA program, which rose up one spot from its third-place finish last year. Last year’s winner, the University of California Marshall School of Business, is right behind Indiana Kelley in third place. Lehigh University’s College of Business continues its slow climb up the rankings into fourth. The school was sixth two years ago and fifth last year. Rounding out the top five is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, which also has been moving up in the past three years.
At No. 6, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management surged seven spots from last year’s 13th placement. After Isenberg, the Foisie School at Worcester Polytechnic University is the first of four newcomers to make this year’s ranking at No. 7. Last year’s second-place school, Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, comes in at No. 8. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln slipped one spot from No. 8 last year to No. 9 this year. And rounding out the top-10 is Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business, which boosted a dozen spots from 22nd place.
Top Ten Online MBA Programs of 2020
- Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, $137,200
- Indiana University Kelley School of Business, $74,520
- University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, $106,197
- Lehigh University College of Business, $39,600
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, $125,589
- University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management, $35,983
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute Foisie Business School, $75,168
- Auburn University Harbert College of Business, $35,100
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln, $30,240
- Rochester Institute of Technology Saunders College of Business, $78,000
For the second year in a row, 35 U.S.-based business schools were ranked. To be included, schools needed to complete an extensive school survey. Of the 35 schools, 34 also allowed us to survey their most recent graduating classes. The alumni survey made up two-thirds of the ranking methodology. Of the 34 schools to survey their alumni between June and September of this year, 32 met the minimum 10% response rate. Kennesaw State University did not allow us to survey their alums, and the University of South Florida and the University of Cincinnati failed to meet the minimum 10% response rate. In all, 8,381 alumni were surveyed and 1,583 responded for a total response rate of about 19%.
Like the previous two rankings, schools were ranked based on three equally weighted categories — admissions standards, the quality of the academic experience, and the career outcomes of graduates. Admissions standards included average undergraduate GPAs of the most recently enrolled classes, average work experience, acceptance rates, and GMAT or GRE scores. Schools that enrolled students with at least 10 years of work experience were given credit if they waived standardized test scores for those students. The programs with the best admissions scores were at Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts, Indiana, Lehigh, and Wisconsin.
The quality of the academic experience at a school was based on 11 questions on a one-to-ten scale that sought alumni satisfaction on numerous aspects of the program, including group work with classmates, the availability and knowledge of the faculty, and the flexibility of the program. At the top of the academic experience category were RIT Saunders, Carnegie Mellon, Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Lastly, we looked at career outcomes, which were also based solely on alumni surveys. We asked alumni if their primary and secondary career-related goals were met as a result of the program. We also asked graduates if they won pay raises or promotions as a direct consequence of the online MBA. Alumni opinions on the availability of career resources and career coaches or mentors by the school also were sought. Topping the career outcomes category were USC Marshall, RIT Saunders, Carnegie Mellon, North Carolina, and WPI.
SOME LARGE MOVEMENTS IN THIS YEAR’S ONLINE MBA RANKING
With a relatively new and developing ranking — especially one based heavily on alumni feedback — some big movements are inevitable. One of the largest positive jumps this year was RIT Saunders, which catapulted a dozen spots from 22nd last year to 10th this year. However, in the first edition of the ranking, Saunders was 13th, suggesting last year’s finish might have been more of the anomaly. Saunders moved up to 10th by finishing first in the academic experience category and second in career outcomes — both categories were based solely on alumni feedback.
Meanwhile, the University of North Dakota surged 13 spots from 27th to 14th, after finishing fifth in the first ranking. The University of Wisconsin’s Consortium program had the largest jump, going from 30th last year to 15th this year. The Consortium was launched in 2003 and includes faculty from three University of Wisconsin system universities — Eau Claire, La Cross, and Osh Kosh. “We’re pulling top faculty from three institutions,” says Robert Erffmeyer, director of the program and a professor of marketing at Eau Claire for three decades. Wisconsin’s program is fully asynchronous, meaning it has no live Internet nor in-person class sessions. Despite enrolling students from 36 states and four countries, the Wisconsin program is heavily populated with students from the Midwest coming out of the healthcare and engineering fields. To stay relative, Erffmeyer says, faculty meet annually to project what electives students might want in two years based on residential and online teaching. They then create those courses.
Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School had the largest drop this year, falling from 16th place last year to 34th this year. While Northeastern’s alumni ratings were relatively stable, D’Amore-McKim took a larger hit in the admissions category this year. Hofstra University’s Zarb School also had significant movement, tumbling from ninth last year to 24th. After finishing first in the academic experience category and second in career outcomes last year, Zarb’s most recent alumni placed them slightly lower in each category at 13th and 10th, respectively.