The Best Online MBA Programs Of 2021

HOW WE CRUNCH THE NUMBERS FOR THE RANKING

From the very beginning, Poets&Quants has assessed the quality of programs on three equally weighted categories — admissions standards, academic experience, and career outcomes–based on surveys of recent alumni and program administrators. The admissions standards use average undergraduate GPAs, average years of work experience, acceptance rates, and average GMAT scores taking into consideration percentages of those that reported GMAT scores and percentages of those that had the scores waived because they had at least 10 years of work experience.

The academic experience and career outcomes sections are based on an alumni survey of 2020 graduates. The survey, which has 46 questions was conducted between May and October of this year. For the alumni survey to count, schools had to meet the minimum 10% response rate. All but four schools met that threshold. (Click here for a detailed look at this year’s methodology.)

The nature of this ranking means schools can fluctuate in how they place from year to year. Two-thirds of the methodology comes directly from alumni responses, which means one graduating class can place its school higher or lower. Villanova and George Washington, for example, were both able to surge 20 positions or more thanks to improved placements in the academic experience category, where Villanova placed second and George Washington placed 12th. Meanwhile, schools like the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the University of North Dakota dropped around 20 places. Michigan-Dearborn placed 41st this year in the academic experience category and North Dakota placed 38th in career outcomes.

Other schools, however, have remained more consistent, thanks to stable alumni scores over the years. As mentioned, USC, Indiana, and Carnegie Mellon have all remained in the top-three the past two years and the top-four the past three years. Likewise, Auburn, Lehigh, and UNC have all staked claims in the top-10 the past three years.

Poets&Quants Online MBA Rankings – Individual Categories

KELLEY WON THE ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE CATEGORY

Lehigh University topped the admissions category. Propelling Lehigh to the win in the category was its GMAT average score of 629. Just 34% of the incoming class reported a GMAT score, but 78% had their GMAT scores waived because of having 10 years of work experience or more. Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Foisie School had the highest average undergraduate GPA at 3.54. Students at George Washington University, Jack Welch Management Institute, and Rochester Institute of Technology all had an average of 15 years of work experience when they entered the online MBA programs last year. And Jack Welch had the toughest acceptance rate at just under 25%. George Washington finished second in the admissions category and Indiana Kelley finished third.

Kelley led the academic experience category without outright winning any specific data section. Some 80% of the weight in the academic experience area is given to the average score of 15 questions scaled one-to-10. The University of Texas-Dallas had the highest average score from alumni with 9.63. Indiana Kelley followed with 9.446. Questions asked alumni above their experiences with consulting projects, school clubs, international experiences, career services, professors, and fellow classmates. The other 20% in the category was awarded based on the average percentage of students reporting they had an international experience, consulting project, and opportunity to participate in a student club. Villanova’s School of Business topped the category with 63.33% reporting they had at least one of the above experiences. Indiana Kelley again placed second at 60%. Overall, Villanova finished second in the academic experience category with the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School finishing in third.

Lastly, The College of William & Mary’s Mason School topped the career outcomes category. Also based on the alumni survey, schools were awarded points based on the percentage of students reporting a promotion or raise as a direct result of the program, the percentage of students saying they reached their primary or secondary career goal, and an average of scaled one-to-10 questions asking about the career services and mentors offered by the school. The University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business followed William & Mary in second and Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business rounded out the top three.

Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University

CHANGES IN ADMISSIONS AND CAREER SUPPORT AT KELLEY

Ask any online MBA director or dean and they’ll tell you not all online MBA programs are created the same. It’s truer in the online space, which can have varying types of in-person and synchronous course requirements compared to the residential MBA, which largely have very similar structures and approaches. “I think it’s important to know that not all online MBAs are built the same,” Kelley’s Venkataraman says.

Kelley’s program, which was launched in 1999, for example, delivers more than half of the curriculum in a synchronous format, or live Internet classes and global immersions. It also requires a one-week residential component per academic year, called the Kelley Connect Week, on its campus in Bloomington, IN. The faculty create new case studies for online students annually, with protagonists who show up during the in-residence weeks for presentations students must make before them. Kelley Direct MBA students also gain access to the same career services offered to residential MBA students and have the same residential faculty teaching in the program.

Ramesh Venkataraman, who has been leading the online MBA efforts for about four years now calls the first-place finish in this year’s ranking a “vindication.”

‘A VINDICATION FOR SOME OF THE EFFORTS WE’VE PUT IN’

Ramesh Venkataraman. IU photo

“It’s a vindication for some of the efforts we’ve put in,” he says. Last year, for example, Kelley significantly revamped its program, doubling the number of elective classes for online students and redesigning the business basics into an integrated core curriculum similar to the way Kelley teaches its full-time MBA students. For the first time, online students have the option of majoring in one of seven disciplines after completing 12 credit hours in a subject, ranging from finance and marketing to entrepreneurship and innovation and business analytics. Those curriculum changes gave Kelley Direct greater differentiation in the market.

The school also engineered significant changes in the admissions process and career services offered to online MBA students. All applicants viewed as potential candidates are interviewed — some even before submitting all of their application materials.

“We ask the typical behavioral questions you’d expect in a company interview, our admissions staff asks those questions and then we also make sure they have the right motivation, they understand the rigor, and they can actually handle the workload,” Venkataraman explains.

The admissions staff then reports back to the rest of the team and a soft decision is made relatively early in the process. “It’s better to part ways earlier than to have mismanaged expectations and part ways later,” Venkataraman says.

CARNEGIE MELLON AND USC MAINTAIN STRONG FINISHES 

Second-place Tepper School of Business, which also happens to be the priciest degree again this year at $141,320, delivers about half of its program on a synchronous basis. It is one of the younger programs in terms of student age with an average of 6.4 years of work experience and an average age of 30 for those entering the program this past year. Similar to Kelley and other top programs, Tepper uses its residential MBA faculty and administrative services for the online program. What sets Tepper’s program apart from others is the mini-semester access weekends. At the beginning of each mini-semester, students come to campus to kick-off classes in person with their professors and classmates.

Along with the Tepper School of Business and UNC Kenan-Flagler’s program, USC Marshall’s online MBA has a price tag of more than $100K. Those three schools are the only three of the 47 ranked this year with a six-figure cost. Of course, all three are also in the top-five of this year’s ranking, so the cliche of you pay what you get for might be true. Either way, USC also has above half of its coursework in a synchronous format. Students are in the typical age-range for the online degree and average 33-years-old with a decade of work experience. Just 4% of the faculty teaching in the online program only teach in that program. Meaning, like others, USC is using a lot of their residential MBA faculty to teach the courses. Students are required to come to USC’s Los Angeles campus for about a week at the beginning of the program. They also have an opportunity to participate in a weeklong international experience. Students seem to like the experience as USC finished in the top-10 in both academic experience and career outcome categories.

Poets&Quants Online MBA Rankings – Individual Categories

Each category of Admissions, Academic Experience, and Career Outcomes is weighted equally for 100 points.

2020 Rank Rank School Final Weighted Score Final Raw Score Admissions Rank Academic Experience Rank Career Outcomes Rank
2 1 Indiana University (Kelley) 100.00 282.20 3 1 10
1 2 Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) 97.41 274.89 6 13 4
3 3 University of Southern California (Marshall) 96.03 270.98 7 7 8
25 4 George Washington University 93.59 264.09 2 12 21
5 5 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) 91.79 259.03 18 3 5
4 6 Lehigh University 89.26 251.90 1 17 35
28 7 Villanova University 89.05 251.31 8 2 32
8 8 Auburn University (Harbert) 88.89 250.84 13 11 17
NR 9 University of Washington (Foster) 88.79 250.57 26 6 7
NR 10 Santa Clara University (Leavey) 88.68 250.25 30 8 3
22 11 North Carolina State University (Jenkins) 87.26 246.23 27 4 9
16 12 Washington State University (Carson) 86.58 244.31 5 28 26
17 13 University of Maryland (Smith) 86.04 242.80 32 14 2
NR 14 Drexel University (LeBow) 85.72 241.89 24 21 11
NR 15 University of Utah (Eccles) 85.46 241.16 16 16 20
12 16 Baylor Univerity (Hankamer) 84.11 237.37 20 27 15
NR 17 University of Florida 84.05 237.17 12 25 25
13 18 University of Texas-Dallas (Jindal) 83.64 236.03 15 20 22
NR 19 The College of William & Mary (Mason) 83.47 235.55 38 23 1
23 20 Jack Welch Management Institute 81.95 231.27 33 15 12
6 21 University of Massachusetts-Amherst (Isenberg) 81.41 229.73 9 37 29
11 22 University of Arizona (Eller) 80.32 226.67 31 22 16
NR 23 University of Denver (Daniels) 79.57 224.55 37 9 18
9 24 University of Nebraska-Lincoln 78.81 222.39 25 30 24
20 25 University of South Florida (Muma) 78.80 222.38 10 31 39
30 26 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 78.52 221.58 21 32 27
NR 27 Arizona State University (W. P. Carey) 78.52 221.57 17 36 28
NR 28 American University (Kogod) 76.98 217.23 47 5 14
7 29 Worcester Polytechnic Institute 76.14 214.87 42 33 6
18 30 SUNY Oswego 75.13 212.01 11 34 42
14 31 University of North Dakota (Nistler) 74.70 210.81 28 19 38
15 32 University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium 74.46 210.12 4 43 40
31 33 University of Massachusetts-Lowell 73.85 208.39 23 38 31
NR 34 University of Delaware (Lerner) 73.61 207.71 29 26 37
24 35 Hofstra University 73.52 207.47 44 10 23
29 36 Ohio University 73.42 207.19 41 29 19
32 37 Louisiana State University 71.56 201.93 35 24 33
33 38 Florida International University 68.15 192.31 36 35 34
NR 39 Imperial College Business School 66.96 188.96 14 18 13
NR 40 Creighton University (Heider) 65.58 185.07 39 40 36
34 41 Northeastern University (D’Amore-McKim) 64.21 181.21 45 39 30
19 42 University of Michigan-Dearborn 60.89 171.84 40 41 41
26 43 University of Cincinnati (Lindner) 53.55 151.11 43 42 43
NR 44 Oklahoma State University (Spears) 25.38 71.61 19 45 45
35 45 Kennesaw State University 24.52 69.19 22 44 44
10 46 Rochester Institute of Technology (Saunders) 19.18 54.12 34 46 46
NR 47 Rogers State University 13.29 37.51 46 47 47

Source: Poets&Quants

THE NEWBIE PROGRAMS POPPING UP

This ranking’s growth and increased competitiveness are not surprising considering the top-flight universities entering the market. Schools like the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business recently launched a program that just enrolled its first class. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management has also created a program in the past couple of years. As have Boston University and the University of California-Davis. As those programs graduate cohorts, we expect the ranking to grow in size and competitiveness.

Two examples of that taking place this year include the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business and Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business. Both launched their programs within the past three years and both graduated their first cohorts within the past year. And both debuted in the top-10.

WASHINGTON FOSTER CREATES A PROGRAM BASED ON NETWORKING CULTURE

Jodey Farwell, the director of the Foster Hybrid MBA at the University of Washington. Washington Foster photo

While Washington Foster officially launched its program in 2017, Andrew Krueger, the director of alumni and media relations at Foster, says the school has long discussed the potential for an online degree option. “Foster was a little hesitant to get into the space because most of our alumni thrive off of the culture and the experience that happens on campus,” Krueger says. “And so we didn’t want to just move forward with the typical online experience.”

So in 2016, Washington Foster took a survey of people in six regional states including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, and Hawaii. They learned if they were going to launch an online MBA program, it needed to be highly accessible but also have strong networking potential. “They wanted that collaboration, that sense of team,” Krueger says of the results. They also realized part of the program needed to have residential components. “We went back and thought things out and realized that without some on-campus experience, we weren’t going to deliver what Foster is really known for,” Krueger explains.

Since then the program has grown from 45 students to 156 this past year. Part of the success in growing the program has stemmed from the culture Foster has tried to build. “The culture has to be that level of engagement where professors know the students’ names — they know the companies they work at. The students know each other. The students know the staff,” says Jodey Farwell, who is the program director for Foster’s Hybrid MBA. That’s the kind of culture the Foster Hybrid program has established.”

Students are immediately placed into teams of five or six that they work with the entire length of the program. The hybrid model manifests through three or four-day campus immersions at the beginning of each quarter. All students finish the program within two years.

Washington placed sixth in the academic experience category and seventh in the career outcomes category. The strong alumni survey scores are what led Washington to its ninth-place finish this year. Farwell much of that success likely comes down to the diversity of the teams and cohort in the program. “The more we can diversify, the better we’ll be,” she says. “Because we can get new ideas, new perspectives, we’re going to have to debate, think harder, critically analyze problems, and we don’t get to do that without a certain level of diversity.”

Toby McChesney of Santa Clara’s Leavey School of Business. Courtesy photo

SANTA CLARA INVESTS EARLY IN CAREER SUPPORT FOR ONLINE MBA STUDENTS

Even younger is the online program at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business, which launched in January 2018. The program graduated its first class this past January. From the get-go, a career-focus has been a major piece of the program.

“I went to the provost directly with the dean and said, ‘if we’re going to do this, we have to have career support,'” says Toby McChesney, the school’s senior assistant dean for graduate programs. “I know a lot of the online programs don’t. So we have a full career services office and our only job is to serve our online MBA and MS marketing students.”

It’s paid off early as Santa Clara’s alumni ranked the school third in the career outcomes category and eighth in academic experience. The program is 95% online with two residential programs — one for orientation and one at the end for a class called Challenges in Management. Based in Silicon Valley, McChesney says many of their students come from the San Francisco Bay Area, but the school has now expanded to include students from 11 states.

“Yes, we’re a Jesuit school, but more importantly, we’re next to Silicon Valley,” McChesney says. “All of our courses have at least a thread with Silicon Valley. It could be a case study with Apple or bringing in a speaker, etcetera. We are really poised to push innovation through our curriculum.”

The program has a bit of a blend with the school’s evening MBA program. Students can take classes in both programs and both programs give one-on-one access to the career services director. McChesney says those residential programs were crucial to the creation and execution of the program and that he’s fine with “losing” a few students to other programs if they’re not willing to commit to some residential time. And like all schools on this ranking, McChesney says the online MBA degree is very much part of the Santa Clara family of degrees.

“I think a lot of schools treat their online MBA programs kind of like a step-child or over there,” McChesney says. “And we don’t view them that way. They are our students. We treat them just the same as any student.”

CONTINUING THE PROGRESS AND LEGITIMIZE THE ONLINE MBA DEGREE

To be sure, many of the schools on this list have been offering top-shelf online MBA programs for years. But that approach has also led to the increased legitimacy of the online MBA space. And if it hasn’t, schools like the ones on this list are making changes to make sure it does happen. Venkataraman believes the Coronavirus pandemic will only accelerate that process. “If the pandemic continues, it will crystalize the good online MBA programs,” he says.

When Amani Jambhekar was finishing her general surgery residency at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital in Brooklyn, she noticed a couple of problems. “I didn’t really have any female mentors at all,” Jambhekar says, noting the field of surgery is similar to engineering or finance in one key way— it is dominated by men.

This led to Jambhekar’s second, more specific, problem: Women residents had to share a bathroom with male residents and attending surgeons. “Which was really gross and inappropriate,” she says. It was also not practical. “If you were a female resident in my program and you were on call, you had to go hunt around for a restroom to use,” Jambhekar says.

That was something of a final straw for Jambhekar, who decided she wanted to effect change by earning an MBA. After much research, she decided the best way to do that was through Kelley Direct, the online MBA program at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “In my field, in surgery, there are not very many women and I really wanted to get an MBA to eventually be in a leadership position,” Jambhekar explains. “And not just be in a leadership position, but be a good leader and advocate for more women in surgery and do it by speaking the language of the decision-makers.”

For Amani Jambhekar, the experience in the Kelley Direct Online MBA program led to much more than cutting her teeth in hospital leadership. She has been able to launch some meaningful social entrepreneurship projects. Jambhekar helped create the Real Heroes Need Masks program, which has helped deliver tens of thousands of personal protective equipment to hospital workers. It also helped lead to a rare leadership position in her first year as an attending breast surgical oncologist.

“These types of social entrepreneurship projects are something I wouldn’t even know how to undertake if it wasn’t for what I learned at Kelley,” Jambhekar says. “My surgical training taught me how to operate but my MBA training taught me how to think.”

University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Photo by Anne Ziemniak of USC Marshall

Lehigh University

Admissions Data At The Top Online MBA Programs

Full admissions data for the 47 schools ranked in this year’s Poets&Quants ranking of best online MBA programs. All data are for students entering during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Rank School Average Undergraduate GPA Average Work Experience Acceptance Rate Average GMAT Percentage of Students Reporting GMAT Average GRE Percentage of Students Reporting GRE
1 Indiana University (Kelley) 3.42 9 65.94% 650 32.00% 315 13.00%
2 Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) 3.4 6.4 55.96% 671 83.00% 324 21.00%
3 University of Southern California (Marshall) 3.12 10 64.88% 618 28.00% 310 27.00%
4 George Washington University 3.2 15 79.26% 604 2.00% 309 12.00%
5 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) 3.2 10 54.55% 677 7.00% 314 4.00%
6 Lehigh University 3.39 8.77 55.71% 629 34.00% 314 16.00%
7 Villanova University 3.23 9.8 83.54% 577 23.47% 306 14.29%
8 Auburn University (Harbert) 3.36 6 67.23% 605 73.00% 309 17.00%
9 University of Washington (Foster) 3.42 8.2 82.83% 619 51.00% 314 49.00%
10 Santa Clara University (Leavey) 3.13 10.6 97.96% 582 3.00% 302 6.00%
11 North Carolina State University (Jenkins) 3.29 8.8 70.70% 565 3.48% 310 5.22%
12 Washington State University (Carson) 3.43 10 78.77% 541 7.50% 151 2.00%
13 University of Maryland (Smith) 3.2 7.325 70.23% 604 9.40% 314 7.38%
14 Drexel University (LeBow) 3.12 9.77 31.32% 575 4.00% 298 6.00%
15 University of Utah (Eccles) 3.4 10.9 78.66% 567 9.60% 309 11.70%
16 Baylor Univerity (Hankamer) 3.14 11.5 75.72% 687 1.70% 312.5 1.17%
17 University of Florida 3.39 6.33 63.64% 576 40.00% 305 37.00%
18 University of Texas-Dallas (Jindal) 3.48 8 50.61% 577 21.00% 307 24.00%
19 The College of William & Mary (Mason) 3.13 8 85.38% 536 6.70% 304 4.70%
20 Jack Welch Management Institute 3.1 15 24.79% N/A N/A N/A N/A
21 University of Massachusetts-Amherst (Isenberg) 3.38 11.3 66.31% 594 2.90% 312 10.50%
22 University of Arizona (Eller) 3.45 10.08 67.47% 559 9.00% 304 6.00%
23 University of Denver (Daniels) 3.09 10 79.80% 380 0.01% 289 2.20%
24 University of Nebraska-Lincoln 3.38 8.5 84.86% 616.3 22.40% 313.5 10.90%
25 University of South Florida (Muma) 3.42 10 49.70% 551 21.00% 304 15.00%
26 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 3.348 8 60.73% 507 22.00% 303 23.00%
27 Arizona State University (W. P. Carey) 3.4 6 54.55% 587 46.00% 307 34.00%
28 American University (Kogod) 3 5.8 49.58% 500 0.57% 306.3 3.45%
29 Worcester Polytechnic Institute 3.54 7 72.73% 640 1.00% 300 7.14%
30 SUNY Oswego 3.36 9.26 90.16% 510 58.00% 305 6.25%
31 University of North Dakota (Nistler) 3.41 6.5 92.78% 563 35.00% 308 3.00%
32 University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium 3.34 10.5 92.55% 575 42.90% 308 9.40%
33 University of Massachusetts-Lowell 3.45 11.5 90.73% 579 2.00% 0 0.00%
34 University of Delaware (Lerner) 3.29 5.56 68.69% 603 7.40% 309 15.00%
35 Hofstra University 3.13 11.8 83.54% N/A N/A N/A N/A
36 Ohio University 3.2 7.1 92.13% 610 0.60% 149.75 1.30%
37 Louisiana State University 3.02 8 69.84% 495 1.10% 298 2.20%
38 Florida International University 3.22 7.7 55.24% 510 0.33% 291 0.36%
39 Imperial College Business School 3.43 10 28.82% 650 1.40% 155 0.70%
40 Creighton University (Heider) 3.34 6.85 85.90% 670 4.00% 296 4.00%
41 Northeastern University (D’Amore-McKim) 3.22 10 77.02% N/A N/A N/A N/A
42 University of Michigan-Dearborn 3.46 6.49 53.18% 610 3.00% 309 5.00%
43 University of Cincinnati (Lindner) 3.369 7 59.84% 636.66 2.00% 320 1.00%
44 Oklahoma State University (Spears) 3.41 7 50.24% 592 41.46% 312.4 36.00%
45 Kennesaw State University 3.28 10.3 65.58% 575 8.20% 322.5 1.85%
46 Rochester Institute of Technology (Saunders) 3.2 15 33.33% N/A N/A N/A N/A
47 Rogers State University 3.25 10 93.65% N/A N/A N/A N/A

Source: Poets&Quants School Surveys

2021 Poets&Quants Online MBA Rankings Package

HOW ONLINE MBA STUDENTS RATE THEIR EXPERIENCE

HOW ONLINE MBAS RATE THE IMPACT OF THE DEGREE ON THEIR CAREERS

ACCEPTANCE RATES FOR THE TOP ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS

AVERAGE GMAT, GRE & GPAS FOR THE 2021 TOP ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS 

AVERAGE WORK EXPERIENCE OF STUDENTS AT THE TOP 2021 ONLINE MBA OPTIONS

MOST & LEAST EXPENSIVE TOP ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS OF 2021

VIDEO: DEANS’ PANEL — A CONVERSATION WITH LEADERS OF THE TOP ONLINE MBA OPTIONS

PODCAST: MBA ALTERNATIVES: A BUSINESS CASUAL CONVERSATION ON THE PROS AND CONS OF MBA ALTERNATIVES FROM ONLINE MBAS TO PART-TIME MBAS AND EXECUTIVE MBA PROGRAMS 

VIDEO: OUR BACKSTAGE WEBINAR SERIES ON THE TOP ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS

THE METHODOLOGY BEHIND P&Q’S 2021 ONLINE MBA RANKING

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