Here’s the good news for business schools: Their degrees are still popular, despite a host of pandemic-related disruptions to higher education. But that’s not the full story, because the ways in which prospective MBAs want to complete the degree — as well as what they’re looking for in a business degree — are changing, according to an annual survey of prospective MBA students around the globe. The upshot? Prospective students want more flexible ways to complete an MBA, and they want more specialization.
The Tomorrow’s MBA study has been conducted for the past 12 years by consulting firm CarringtonCrisp. This year’s edition found that 70% of survey respondents are more likely to pursue an MBA than a year ago, while more than three-quarters — 78% — are more likely to pursue a degree at a business school with more flexible options. And 70% said they’re more likely to consider completing all or most of their MBA degree online.
“Covid-19 has opened new demands of when, where, and how students want to study at business school,” Andrew Crisp, the author of the study, says. “For instance, over half (55%) of respondents indicated that they would not consider business schools based in certain countries due to the pandemic. The future challenge for business schools is how they combine face to face learning and digital study and develop study choices to meet a range of different demands.”
ONLINE MBA DEGREES GAINING IN POPULARITY COMPARED TO TRADITIONAL PROGRAMS
The online study received responses from 668 prospective MBA applicants from 20 different countries, with most coming from the UK, United States, India, Canada, Australia, and China and Hong Kong. About 85% of respondents were between ages 26 and 40, and the rest were between 22 and 25 years old.
About 51% of respondents said they prefer the traditional full-time MBA structure — roughly 28% of respondents said their preferred form of study is the two-year full-time MBA, with the next highest group (23%) preferring the one-year full-time MBA format — despite the proliferation of alternatives. The part-time MBA format was next in popularity with 22% of respondents saying that was their preference, followed by the online MBA, with 15%.
While the online format trailed, it has gained much more in popularity since last year. The full-time two-year MBA increased in popularity only slightly from 27% in last year’s survey, while the one-year MBA dropped from 27% last year. But the online MBA gained 4 percentage points from 11.5% saying they preferred it last year to 15.5% this year.
Men and women, however, have some significant differences in format preferences. The starkest of which are in the traditional full-time two-year MBA. Some 34.7% of men responding to the survey said they preferred the two-year full-time MBA, which was the most popular choice among males by more than 10 percentage points. Only 21.5% of female respondents said they preferred the full-time two-year MBA. More women prefer the one-year full-time MBA (24%) and the part-time MBA (23%) than the two-year full-time MBA. The next most popular category for women is the online MBA, which 19% said they preferred. For men, the full-time one-year MBA was the second-most popular format with 23% preferring it, followed by the part-time MBA (19.7%) and online MBA (13.15%).
THE PANDEMIC’S IMPACT ON APPROACHES TO MBA STUDY
This year’s study, which was conducted at the end of 2020, included questions looking at how the pandemic is shaping the way prospective MBA students are approaching the degree.
“Flexible approaches to study were already a feature of the MBA market prior to the pandemic, but now appear to be at the front of many candidates’ minds,” the study said. “Wanting to avoid a situation where they are unable to get home or to start their studies and aware of the possibilities of online learning, flexible study is a strong theme in this year’s report.”
Perhaps the most surprising tidbit, mentioned above, is the larger percentage (78%) of prospective students saying they’re now more likely to consider business schools with “flexible study options in its MBA.” Specifically, more than 70% of respondents said they’re more likely to consider programs that allow them to switch back and forth between in-person learning on campus and online learning — a strong nod towards blended learning. More than 70% also said they’d be more likely to consider a program that is formatted into modules that can be completed on their own time over years.
FLEXIBILITY IN DEFREE OFFERINGS AND PROGRAMMING WILL BE KEY
When asked about the importance of new content in the MBA degree, nearly 90% responded that “responsible management” would be important or very important. About 83% said “ethical leadership” was important or very important, about 81% said global challenges like climate change, poverty, and pandemics would be important or very important, and 80% said diversity and inclusion would be important or very important.
Still, the main takeaway for business schools is to remain nimble in their degree offering and programming. Having flexibility and different degree options and focus areas could be paramount.
“The traditional application bounce associated with economic downturn seems to be present, but it may be that the impact for business schools is not as large as before with alternatives to an MBA now more widespread,” the study says. “Candidates may also not want the traditional full-time on-campus MBA with schools needing to broaden their MBA offer to ensure they benefit from increased interest in the degree.”