Online MBA vs. Undergraduate Programs: 10 Differences

Remember your college years? They were the good ol’ days for many. Forget children, jobs, and mortgages. You were free, even if you were broke. Responsibility meant a part-time job – or a project with a professor. And you were always going somewhere and doing something. Back then, you sometimes took the easy way out. You relied on cramming over learning. Who didn’t? After all, college was just a pit stop to your destination – and your grades were your ticket to admission.

Fast forward 15-20 years – and you know just how little those grades really meant. Now, you can’t solve the problems plaguing your division with an all-nighter. This time around, you really have to learn because you have people depending on you. You are the pacesetter and your decisions matter. And it’s going to be harder the second time around with people and demands coming at you from every direction.

Of course, adult education has taken a leap forward over the past two digitals. Namely, schools have developed digital tools that have made learning more accessible and intuitive. That enabled Matthew Kirby Galliger to get far more out of his online MBA. A ’22 graduate of Arizona State’s W. P. Carey School, Galliger loved how the digital tools enabled him to learn on his terms.


Casey Timmons, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

“I had the ability to rewind lecture videos if I missed something or didn’t quite get it the first time around,” he tells P&Q. “Sadly, real life doesn’t come with those capabilities so if you miss something in a live lecture it’s often hard to get back around to it, then it pops up on an exam and it’s too late. I also had a perfect attendance record in my online program because there weren’t any 8 am lectures or night labs. I had all the materials I needed to be successful at my fingertips with access to a world-class faculty who really cared about their students.”

Another difference between brick-and-mortar undergrad and online grad school? On the surface, Casey Timmons appreciated how class sizes at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School were smaller than his undergraduate days studying engineering. The bigger difference, Timmons notes, is the change in how online MBA students value learning as adults.

“The goal of an undergrad is to get a job and prove to yourself and others that you can become something,” he observes. “The online MBA is much different. Most students have a focus to gain skills and maybe transition roles or companies, but they know who they are as a person. They come into the program with rich histories and this knowledge will help educate the cohort.”

These experiences – both in-depth and reach – make the online program all the more enriching,” Timmons adds.  “We might all be discussing the same problem but the student with 25 years in the army or the former professional football player will bring a different perspective than I have as a person with a decade at the same company.”


While earning her online MBA at Indiana University’s Kelley School, Sarah Wingfield served as Chief of Staff for the Indiana University School of Medicine. She worried that the online platform would be the opposite of her undergraduate experience: a small liberal arts college where the faculty and students all knew each other. Rather than being a “face in the crowd,” Wingfield found the Kelley Direct Online MBA to be a place where she could develop those same relationships.

“I was a bit worried that I might become just a face in the Zoom checkerboard,” Wingfield admits, “but the professors utilized multiple different tools to create a very intimate learning environment. Breakout rooms, discussion boards, and small groups all provided chances to connect in class. The fact that we were placed in cohorts early in the program with our core classes allowed me to start to recognize the same faces in classes not just during the core blocks, but during elective classes too.”

Those aren’t the only differences between undergraduate and online MBA studies. This spring, P&Q reached out to the top online MBA programs to learn more about these differences. From faculty relationships to networking opportunities, here are 10 ways that online MBA programs offer a better learning environment than its undergraduate counterpart.

Matthew Kirby Galliger, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

1) Bring Real-Life Experience: “Undergraduates speak about theory and perhaps an internship, but it lacks the experience and depth of knowledge that I saw in the MBA program. With the program being online, it allowed people from all over the world to participate, in one group project the team might span 5+ time zones. It might have made coordinating meetings difficult, but it did bring a richness of perspectives that made learning that much more valuable.”
Kiza Miller, University of Arizona (Eller)

2) Professors More Responsive (Via Email): “In undergrad, if you missed a class and had to email questions or happened to have another class during their office hour time, you wouldn’t always get a response. In the online program, the professors were incredibly accommodating because they understood you were working full-time and had no issues answering questions about general topics, supplemental materials, or homework.”
Matthew Kirby Galliger, Arizona State (W. P. Carey)

3) Smaller Class Sizes: “There was a stark contrast between the two learning environments due to the size and format of the programs. The University of Pittsburgh is a large school, where I attended lecture halls with potentially hundreds of students. My online MBA classes had about 30 students, whom I got to know very well because we were all in the same courses. We had an opportunity to speak up, ask questions, and get individual attention. This also contributed to our tight-knit group and a “family feel” during in-person weekends. And the delivery format of synchronous and asynchronous online education offered greater flexibility, allowing you to learn from your home, business trip, or, in some cases, on vacation.”
Svetlana (Sveta) Vodicka, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

4) Networking Opportunities Aplenty: “When applying for the iMBA at Gies College of Business, I had an interview with the admissions team. At the very end, I asked if networking was something feasible in an online environment. The answer ended up being the greatest piece of advice that made my experience very fruitful. As a classroom student, you will inevitably have moments where networking will naturally happen such as a coffee break or a get-together once the class is over at the end of the day. In an online environment, these moments need to be created and you, as a student, need to pursue them. In other words, you need to make an extra effort to create or be part of some extra-curriculum moments that will strengthen your network. Now, if you put that extra effort, your networking possibilities are much wider in an online environment. I had the chance to meet students from all over the world and, with some of them, I have the pleasure of having regular monthly meetups which we all look forward to having as it is so much fun. Bottom line: Make an extra effort to engage with other students and you will see how it really pays off.”
Eduardo Martins Rocha, University of Illinoi (Gies)

5) More Natural Environment: “Oddly enough, I relate my online learning experience to animals in the wild versus animals in captivity. Here, students more truthfully represent themselves in their ‘natural habitat’ than they do on exhibition in captivity. It introduces a level of vulnerability and authenticity that facilitates a different kind of interaction and connection. I also found the online environment to be more inclusive and accessible for students that may experience sensory, learning, or social determinant challenges.”
Kati Dempsey, Lehigh University

6) Stronger Personal Relationships: “I found the online MBA program to be just as diverse and rich as my in-person undergraduate experience. The relationships I have formed with my classmates in the Ross program are in some ways stronger than those I formed in college because as a class we were together constantly and highly motivated to learn from each other.”
Leslie Patch, University of Michigan (Ross)

7) More Engaged Online: “Contrary to my expectations, the online experience created a higher level of engagement than my in-classroom experience as an undergrad. The flexibility of the asynchronous content means that I’m sitting down to focus when it works with my schedule. If I want to revisit a topic or take a break, I can do that to ensure that I’m getting the most out of my time. The online experience at Ross is full of group work, breakout sessions, and interaction with others – far more than most classes allowed in undergrad.”
Brad Kohlmeyer, University of Michigan (Ross)

            Mirjam Eckert, ’22 grad from Warwick Business School’s Distance Learning MBA

8) Easier To Study: “Given that these two experiences are twenty years apart, it’s a bit challenging to compare them directly also because my undergraduate degree was full-time and my MBA course part-time. Generally, I would say I was given more study material for my MBA and I could easily go back over content and rewatch a live session for example as everything is online. This was in contrast to my undergraduate degree, where I relied on my lecture notes and using the library to find further information. During my undergraduate degree, I also had a set timetable, whereas during the MBA self-discipline was very important as I had to work through the course material more independently and had to make weekly decisions about priorities and pace.”
Mirjam Eckert, Warwick Business School

9) Homework Reversed: “The online experience had a different format in that the bulk of our ‘homework’ was done prior to class in order to prepare for a more engaging live session. My undergraduate experience was sort of the opposite, where would go to lecture and the homework followed.”
Brian J. Pretekin, USC (Marshall)

10) Serve Different Priorities: “I started my in-classroom university experience when I was 19 studying biology in Germany. Now, I am almost 20 years older taking business classes online in another country. The experiences are quite different as the environment, culture, and I have changed over the years. Both have been invaluable to me and were the best approaches at that time in my development. As an undergraduate, the in-classroom experience was helpful to get oriented, meet other people, and mature as an individual. Later in life, the online environment gave me the flexibility I required based on my career and personal needs. As a much more mature and confident person, it was easier to build networks and relationships remotely, something that might have been more challenging as a teenager.”
Antje Schickert, University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium


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