The Student Revolt Over MBA Tuition For Online Classes

Classrooms are empty in business schools around the world as instruction moves online. Will prospective students still apply to join future cohorts?

Going to a highly ranked MBA program is an expensive proposition. At MIT’s Sloan School of Management or Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, the total cost to get an MBA–not including foregone earnings–is more than a quarter of a million dollars.

So there may be little surprise that the shift to remote instruction is causing something of a tuition revolt at a wide range of business schools, from Stanford, Columbia Business School, Wharton, UCLA, and NYU Stern to IE Business School in Spain, British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business in Canada and Hult International Business School. At each MBA program, hudnreds of students are demanding at least partial refunds of their tuition because they believe that Zoom classes are not what they had bargained for when they signed up for a fully immersive on-campus experience.

At Stanford, where roughly 80% of the MBA population has already signed a petition which now has more than 700 signatures, students maintain that an online education is a “subpar classroom experience” and are demanding that tuition be cutback substantially for the new spring term that recently started.


At Columbia Business School, nearly 350 have signed the petition. The most signatures for any MBA petition thus far has occurred at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School where the cause has attracted more than 950 supporters as of April 12, almost as many as the 1,206 who have signed a university wide petition for tuition refunds. That is where one outraged supporter wrote: “Charge us what you charge online students or withdraw Donald Trump’s diploma!!!”

“There are a lot of upset students at Stanford and other schools,” says a Stanford MBA who signed the petition but wanted to maintain her anonymity. She believes that a Zoom class is not nearly equivalent to a real in-person class and is disheartened by the school’s response to these concerns. “It is hard to stay focused when you are at home and in front of a computer. Some things don’t work the way they are intended to. Every major or small event is canceled. The social thing is the worst part. We have a group of students who started virtual gatherings and that has provided some relief but those are all student-led so there is disappointment in the school’s inability to recreate the campus experience.”

When students ask about tuition refunds at town halls organized by Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin, she adds, “the dean shuts down. He basically says, ‘Tuition is decided at the university level. Our hands are tied.'”


For business school deans, that is decidedly true. Tuition decisions are based in the provost’s office, and virtually all the costs in higher education are fixed from professors’ compensation to maintaining the buildings and grounds. Last Thursday, Stanford University Provost Persis Drell made clear to students that there would be no cutbacks in their tuition, though the school has agreed to prorated refunds for housing and dining services. “Tuition remains unchanged,” wrote Drell in an email while also noting that she and university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne would voluntarily take a 20% cut to their base pay. For Stanford MBA students, $24,354 in tuition will be due on May 15th for the quarter.

The hard-line most universities have taken on the issue betrays the fact that remote instruction does not even begin to replace even well designed online coursework, never mind a fully immersive, on-campus experience. This is especially so at the best graduate-level business schools where the majority of the learning occurs when students share their experiences and perspectives with each other, where networking is a major reason to get an MBA degree, and where co-curricular activities allow students to flex their leadership muscles.

Remote instruction via Zoom is not even equal to a well-designed online course. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which launched an online MBA program last fall, knows the difference. Each professor invested between 100 and 200 hours to redesign their online courses, ensuring that all the synchronous and asynchronous coursework lead to tangible learning objectives. Those courses are created to ensure maximum engagement from students, with real quizzes, assignments, and exams to ensure academic rigor.


Many MBA deans would agree with that assessment. “We’re cognizant of the fact that having someone sit in Zoom for 75 minutes is not going to be as engaging as someone sitting in a classroom,” says Drew Pascarella, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. “Although you can sit in a classroom and not be engaged, either.”

John Katzman, founder of 2U, the publicly traded online education company, and Noodle Partners, makes the point clearly that instruction via Zoom is not the equivalent of a thoughtfully put together online course. “I’d think of it as half the experience,” he says. “Sure, you can just come to class, and let’s assume you know how to use Zoom well, and that’s it. But you’d be missing out the other part of the online experience — the asynchronous experience— that, together with live video conferencing, provides the greatest potential for learning. And we know that from the research. The other aspect of the Zoom question is that it is just a tool, although a good one, and it depends on the training of the faculty member.”

It’s not only students who believe their tuition should be cut. A survey by shows that 43% of MBA candidates who have been admitted to the top 20 business schools believe tuition fees should be cutback by an average of 37.5% if the first part of their MBA program is shifted online due to the coronavirus pandemic.


In the Stanford GSB petition, students in both the Class of 2020 and 2021 as well as students in the school’s MSx program are demanding an 80% discount on their tuition based on the price for online instruction at both their own school and Harvard Business School Online. “We agreed to enter the GSB with the promise of two full years of experiential learning and networking, and this experience has been severely compromised due to the crisis,” according to the petition. “We, as students of the GSB, believe we have the right to ask for a decreased tuition in-line with the decreased value of our experience…On top of a subpar classroom experience, we are now also unable to take advantage of professional and social programs, such as brown bag lunches, View from the Top, and C4C, which define the GSB experience. We, therefore, propose an 80 percent discount on spring tuition to reflect the current price differential between in-person and online programs.

“The experience is now much more reflective of what we would receive on free online platforms that offer Stanford courses. As a comparison, HBX, Harvard Business School’s online portal, offers online courses at a 70 – 94 percent discount to its in-person MBA program. Even at the GSB, the LEAD online executive program is $15,000, while the offline version is $75,000, an 80 percent discount.”

Stanford’s MBA students acknowledge that the costs to run the school aren’t all that different but believe the university’s endowment should help fund a tuition discount. “We recognize that the costs for the university might not change drastically by going online in short order, but we believe there must be increased room in the operating budget, and what is the purpose of our multi-billion dollar endowment if not to give us room in times of such crisis? Most importantly, we agreed to enter the GSB with the promise of two full years of experiential learning and networking, and this experience has been severely compromised due to the crisis. We, as students of the GSB, believe we have the right to ask for a decreased tuition in-line with the decreased value of our experience.


“Several people in both the MBA and MSx programs have made extraordinary financial sacrifices to participate in Stanford’s in-person program, and many of us have families who are dependent on us. Furthermore, we are facing uncertain financial futures ahead in the wake of a pending economic crisis. A reduction in tuition would allow us to feel positively toward the GSB in the long-term, especially for those of us graduating this year.”

At Columbia Business School, the petition supporters note that they “are now facing an economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus that could dwarf one of the most significant recessions in our country’s history. As a result, for most of us, that means large amounts of student debt, and for others, it means the spending of savings from our early careers. For some, these burdens have been further exacerbated by the wide ramifications of this health crisis.” They, too, demand an 80% discount on their spring MBA tuition.

A similar approach by Wharton MBA students has been overtly respectful, asking for the opening of a dialogue about tuition refunds rather than demanding a refund. “Virtual coursework, however well executed, does not provide the same educational value as the normal in-person classes that we expected when we enrolled,” according to the petition. “Much of the value of the Wharton educational experience comes from interacting with our outstanding faculty in person, engaging in lively discussions with our fellow classmates and learning from each other’s experiences, and hearing from and meeting renowned guest speakers. Virtual classroom technology has been impressive, yet is still just unable to fully replicate that environment.


“Further, more holistic elements of the Wharton experience, such as traveling to and learning in foreign places, participating in a wide range of extracurricular activities, and attending social events, have been essentially canceled for the remainder of our time here. Access to valued wider University benefits, such as facilities, seminars and events, and of course graduation for the Class of 2020, has been curtailed.”

Like the Stanford MBA petition, the Wharton students note the large financial burden of undertaking their MBAs. “For most of us, that means large amounts of student debt, and for others, it means the spending of savings from our early careers,” according to the petition. “For some, these burdens have been further exacerbated by ramifications of this health crisis. For international students, the disruption has triggered logistical and financial challenges impossible to imagine for their domestic classmates. For student-founders, the cancellation and virtualization of pitch competitions have meaningfully diminished their ability to showcase their efforts. For classmates still seeking internships or post-graduation employment, opportunities have now been severely limited by the interruption of recruiting events and processes.”

The issue of tuition reimbursement is also resulting in differences of opinion among students on some business school campuses. At Yale’s School of Management, a disenchanted MBA student posted a petition two weeks ago demanding a 25% cut in MBA tuition that has attracted fewer than 20 signatures. “Our student government has sent a comprehensive survey to students to capture sentiments across the student body and will use that data to put together a comprehensive petition that accurately represents the entire student body,” says Rayan Mansour, an MBA in Yale’s Class of 2020.

Neither the Wharton MBA petition or the UCLA Anderson MBA petition name a specific figure for a refund. As is common to all of the efforts, Anderson students bemoan the loss of the true experience in asking for a discount on their spring tuition bills. “One of the fundamental reasons to apply to UCLA Anderson was the intimate class experience and environment that will not, under any circumstances, be of the same quality as we had thus far,” according to the Anderson petition, signed by some 120 persons. “Classroom experience, meetings, networking events, person-to-person interactions across professors and students, and club activities, to mention some, are going to be lost. Additionally, now, we are not going to have a commencement ceremony.


“We understand that this is unfortunate for the entire UCLA community. However, forcing us to pay full tuition and not sharing the economic burden does not seem fair and does not reflect the share success value of the Anderson school. Although we strongly commit to these values, we also feel that the faculty and the administration body in this situation are not sharing the losses we are currently facing. Like any other affected industry, airline, hospitality, retail among others, are looking for ways to work with their partners to share the burden in this disadvantageous situation, we hope the Anderson community will do the same.

“Despite the fact we had had an excellent experience for the time being, we believe it’s sad to finish our experience this way and won’t like to leave with a bitter taste of an amazing institution and community.”

Ultimately, of course, Dean Levin of Stanford is right. Discounting tuition is in the hands of university leadership. But as the days move on and schools announce that their fall terms will be shifted to remote instruction, it would be foolhardy to think that the protests won’t grow louder. As Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria and Executive Dean for Administration Angela Chrispi noted in an April 6th email to the HBS community, “As the novelty of remote work and online classes fades, we know we’re all, in different ways, hitting the muddy middle… those challenging moments where the days can seem daunting and an end doesn’t yet appear to be in sight.”

That day may come sooner than many think.

A Sample Of MBA Petitions Asking For Tuition Refunds

School Petition Signatures* Petition
Stanford GSB 741 Tuition discount for spring quarter at Stanford Graduate School of Business
Harvard Business School 123 Partial tuition refund for spring term at Harvard Business School
Wharton 956 Wharton MBA Community: Petition for Dialogue on Tuition Relief and/or Other Assistance
Columbia Business School 345 Petition for Tuition Refunds at Columbia Business School
Yale School of Management 15 Reimbursement of 1/4th the annual cost of Yale SOM tuition
Hult International Business School 625 Get A Refund Of The Tuition Fee Or Compensation Due To Online Classes
UCLA Anderson 122 Reduce tuition for Spring Quarter – UCLA ANDERSON

*As of April 12, 2020


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