The Big Question About Online MBA Degrees: Do Employers Respect Them?

Online business education is exploding and the pandemic is one of the reasons

COVID has been a boom to online business education.

After the world locked into a pandemic shutdown in 2020, many professionals reevaluated their career prospects — and a good number of them chose online degree programs. The AACSB, the major accreditation group for business schools, gathered data from its members to find a substantial increase in the number of students who enrolled in online master’s programs in 2020-2021.

How substantial? Try a whopping 158% increase in students.

Before COVID, AACSB had actually measured a slowdown in growth for online master’s enrollments. One simple chart starkly tells the story of that growth.


As the pandemic took hold, students flocked to online master’s programs which showed a massive 158% jump in enrollment in 2020-2021, according to the AACSB

The increase follows an explosion of new online degree programs at many business schools all over the world. In the past five years alone, Online MBA programs more than doubled to 682 among AACSB accredited schools in 2020-2021 from 313 in 2016-2017. The recent ranking of online MBA programs by U.S. News confirms the trend: it is the largest ranking of these options U.S. News has ever published with numerical ranks on 328 online MBA programs, up from 295 last year.

The growth in specialty master’s programs online in such fields as business analytics, supply chain management as well as finance, accounting and marketing was even greater. In 2020-2021, the AACSB counted 566 options, up from only 182 in 2016-2017 (see table below). Yet, even more staggering has been the growth of online undergraduate education. According to the AACSB, there are now 701 such programs, more than triple the number if 2016-2017 when there were only 203 undergraduate business programs online.

Growth Of Online Degree Programs At Business Schools

AACSB data from member schools shows a massive increase in online degree programs

“The pandemic has reshaped our society in a multitude of ways,” notes Tricia Bisoux, editor of AACSB Insights, who parsed the most recent data. “But perhaps the most notable way it has impacted higher education is that it sparked the rapid and comprehensive adoption of online education. Online learning is no longer considered a peripheral option best suited for working professionals too busy to sit in physical classrooms. Rather, more than two years into the pandemic, most students now expect to choose in-person or online delivery for most of their courses—or even for different sessions within the same course—depending on their schedules and preferences.”

The big question, of course, is whether employers view online learning as comparable in quality to in-person education. And on that question, the jury is still out, even though the pandemic has moved most work to be performed remotely. The most recent and most relevant research on this question comes from the Graduate Management Admission Council which surveyed corporate recruiters who regularly hire MBA and business master’s graduates. The survey gathered 569 responses from corporate recruiters between February 25 and March 31, 2021.

The result: More than a third, exactly 37%, of the responding recruiters disagreed with the statement that their organizations value online graduates of business programs the same way they value graduates from in-person programs. But it was not all bad news because more than a third, exactly 34%, indicated that their employers now view virtual and face-to-face learning as equally effective (see chart below). The remaining respondents were undecided.

Source: 2021 GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey

By industry, recruiters from the finance and accounting industry (41%) are more likely to view graduates of online programs as equal to their on-campus peers, compared to their recruiting counterparts in consulting (25%) or technology (28%). That’s actually a bit of a surprise because you would naturally think that tech employers would more likely embrace the benefits of online learning delivered via technology. But that isn’t the case.

When broken down by region, only 29% of recruiters in Asia agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations valued online and on-campus programs equally. Among those in the U.S., 32% agreed with the above statement, while 39% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In Europe, 40% of recruiters agreed that their organizations valued both modes of delivery equally; in the rest of the world (excluding the U.S. and Asia), that number was 47%.

It’s not clear if the survey numbers are an improvement from earlier years because GMAC had never asked this question on the survey before.Opinions, however, are changing and it’s likely that far more employers will view online learning as effective as in-person classes in the future. But for now, more employers seem to think otherwise.


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