In U.S., Online MBA Students Now Exceed Full-Time MBAs

There’s a big surprise buried in a new accounting of the number of MBA students enrolled in business schools: More MBA students in the U.S. are now studying in online MBA options than in the more traditional full-time MBA programs on-campus.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, some 45,038 students were enrolled in Online MBA options in the U.S., compared to 43,740 in full-time programs, according to the AACSB (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), the primary business school accreditation agency (see table below). The numbers show that online learning is much more popular in the U.S. than it is globally, however. On a worldwide basis, full-time students still outnumber those in online programs, 78,061 to 53,281.

Even so, part-time in-person programs, many of which are adding online elements, still remain the MBA offering with the largest student enrollment. In the U.S., 82,322 students are studying for MBAs in part-time evening and weekend programs, roughly 53% of the total. That number swells to 127,844 worldwide, or 51% of the 250,369 students currently enrolled in MBA programs globally.

‘The MBA Landscape Has Shifted In The Last 24 Months’

What’s behind the surge in the popularity of online MBA programs? “The MBA program landscape has shifted significantly in the last 24 months,” notes W. Brooke Elliott, executive associate dean of  academic programs at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. “The pandemic inspired many individuals to re-evaluate their personal and professional choices and to take action, often through education, to change their current path.”

Also helping is a tight labor market that is keeping more young professionals in their jobs. “Thanks to the robust labor market, opportunity costs for people to leave the labor market for a full-time program have increased,” notes Sarah Perez, managing director of MBA programs at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “The need for learning flexibility, even beyond evening/weekend in-person delivery, is very attractive for folks in many industries. Labor markets globally are strong, so the need for flexibility extends beyond national boundaries, too. During the pandemic, more people became comfortable with the concept and reality of online learning.”

At UNC, enrollment in the school’s MBA@UNC online option, now celebrating its tenth year anniversary, has exceeded the school’s full-time MBA enrollment for years, with about 766 students currently online and 637 in UNC’s full-time MBA. “In our case,” Perez adds, “we have four MBA@UNC starts a year so there are more opportunities to begin the program. With online programs, business schools are not limited by physical classroom space.

'Education Has Been Disrupted'

At Gies, enrollment in the school's disruptively priced $23,000 (a $1K increase from the original price) iMBA soared during the pandemic. At Gies, more than 4,200 students are now studying in Gies' online MBA program from an initial cohort of just 263 students in 2016 (see iConverge: A Love Fest Of Passionate Believers For Gies’ iMBA).

"Disruption of the traditional graduate business education had already begun pre-pandemic with innovative, flexible, and affordable programs emerging from top business schools," adds Elliott.  "We have seen in the workplace that individuals value flexibility and autonomy and can be productive and happier working remotely. We have seen large organizations completely shift the way they work, how they attract talent, and where and how they allow this talent to work. Individuals are now seeking the exact same things in education! Education has been disrupted because individuals not only value what they learn but how and when they learn, and innovators in the MBA space are meeting this demand!”

There already are at least 358 online MBA programs in the U.S., with still more schools getting onto the bandwagon. NYU Stern and UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business will soon enroll students in an online option in their part-time MBA programs. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, currently the school with the highest ranked full-time MBA in the online MBA market, saw its first student complete its online MBA last August. Boston University's new Online MBA is graduating its first cohort in May and now boasts a current total enrollment of slightly more than 1,700 online MBA students. The school expects that number to increase to 2,400 by January of next year. The school, which is holding steady its initial price for the program at $24,000 through the next year, has a goal to enroll roughly 550 students this fall during one of its two intakes. And in a recent poll, business school deans predicted that a Top Five business school would enter the Online MBA market in the next two years.

Four Major Trends Have Fueled The Increased Demand For Online MBAs

The increasing popularity of online study can be attributed to four major trends, according to Will Geoghegan, chair of the Kelley Direct Program at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business:

  • The higher level of legitimacy of the online MBA to prospective students, employers, and school leaders.
  • Technology advancements that make online learning more impactful.
  • Increased in-person experiences in online programs.
  • The networking and the significantly lower opportunity costs of not having to quit your job.

“Employers have turned the corner, away from their misperceptions about online learning being inferior to full-time MBA experiences," believes Geoghegan. "In a tight hiring landscape such as the one we are in now, employers embrace opportunities to hold onto their stellar employees while encouraging them to professionally develop through graduate coursework. Online programs are positioned to allow for just such advancement. Our students tell us how their supervisors applauded their decision to remain employed while going back to school through our online MBA. Employers recognize that those who can juggle working full time while earning their MBA highlights an ability to multitask, prioritize, and stay organized -- the same traits and behaviors they seek in an employee.”

Perez at UNC agrees. "Online learning is now very credible," she says. "Outcomes are strong from career and salary perspectives, and technology/delivery has improved dramatically. All schools gained experience during COVID and the MBA age grew up with online learning."

'The Online MBA Learning Experience Is Light Years Ahead Of Previous Generations'

Kelley first launched its online MBA offering in 1999, one of the first business schools in the game, but more recent advances in technology have made online learning a much more attractive option than ever before. “Advancements in technology have made online instruction a viable alternative," says Geoghegan. "We have come a long way from discussion boards and audio recordings over PowerPoint slides. Advancements in video conferencing, white-boarding technologies, classroom response systems, asynchronous engagement, collaboration tools, augmented and virtual reality have allowed for a learning experience that is light years ahead of previous generations."

At a time when many students are hesitant to quit their jobs and go into debt to fund a full-time MBA experience, online options offer the opportunity to get the degree at significantly less cost. “Another factor for the online modality outpacing the in-person variant is due to the cost -- more specifically, the opportunity cost," Geoghegan tells Poet&Quants. "The majority of our online MBA students continue to work while studying for their MBA, not having to forsake two years of their salary and career progression and the vast majority of our students receive a promotion during their time in the program or immediately afterward."

In fact, Poets&Quants' surveys of recent online MBA graduates shows that half or more of the graduates report getting a salary bump as a result of their online MBA degrees (see How Online MBAs Rate The Degree’s Career Impact).

In-residence sessions in some of the online MBA programs have still made it possible to meet faculty and fellow classmates face-to-face over the course of a largely online learning experience. “One of the facets that has evolved in recent years is the ability to combine online instruction with immersive in-person experiences," says Geoghegan. "For example, we offer ‘Kelley On Campus’ in Bloomington at the start of the MBA journey. This in-residence involves onboarding through an introspective analysis of your personal style and behaviors, followed by an intense live case experience where students work through a client problem/ opportunity in a structured manner. We also offer ‘Kelley On Location’ experiences towards the end of the MBA journey to round out the MBA as well as various domestic and international immersions. We believe that these in person experiences are vital complements and drive huge value for our students. The bonds that are developed in person persist and are enhanced in the online environment.”











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