How Online MBA Programs Compare On Retention & Graduation Rates

graduation and retention rates for online MBAs

Online MBA students who drop out of their programs within one year of starting are a bellwether sign of the quality of a program.  A business school’s failure to bring back newly-enrolled MBAs may very well mean that a program didn’t meet expectations. Or perhaps the material wasn’t engaging enough, or there was a mistake in admissions.

Similar to retention, a high graduation rate demonstrates whether a program is capable of rendering successful student outcomes in a timely manner. Providing a space for success is one thing, but the time to finish the degree is a strong indicator of a truly productive program. Generally, a rule of thumb is that an online MBA degree takes two to three years to complete.

So how do business schools fare on these two critical measures?


Among the Top 100 ranked online MBA options in U.S. News‘ 2023 ranking, six B-Schools report a retention rate of 100 percent. When published in January, the schools garnering glowing retention numbers were surprisingly found in both high and low places in the rankings. University of Washington’s Foster School of Business (ranked by U.S. News as #5), James Madison University (#19), North Carolina State’s Poole School of Management (#37), Colorado State University (#44), SUNY Oswego (#58) and Utah State University (#85) reported that every single one of their MBAs returned for a second year online.

The overall median for retention was 93%, with 13 of 100 schools reporting that exact percentage. All of the B-schools with a Top Ten ranking reported a retention score above 90% from 2020-21, with just one exception:  Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business (ranked #9), which has a retention rate of 86%.

Among the Top 100 programs, Xavier University’s Williams College of Business reported the lowest retention rate, at 52%. B-schools at the University of North Texas’ G. Brint Ryan College of Business, Western Kentucky’s Gordon Ford College of Business, University of Tennessee at Martin, St. John’s University, and SUNY’s Polytechnic Institute also reported some of the lowest retention percentages in the 80s. Williams Assistant Dean Jennifer Bush says the school is dealing with decreasing enrollment numbers due to the proliferation of  online options for MBA applicants. Williams has seen an increase in competition across the region along with greater public acceptance of online learning.

There are plenty of reasons why a student would drop out of a program, of course. Some come to the realization that it is too difficult to balance their personal and professional responsibilities with a rigorous academic program. A personal illness or the need to care for a suddenly ill parent or child are certainly justifiable reasons to quit a part-time online MBA. Even so, a program a retention rate below the median should give pause to any would-be applicant.


Similarly, graduation rates can also be interpreted in either a positive or negative way. Part-time programs that offer online MBA students more flexibility to complete their coursework can be especially attractive to students with busy lifestyles. So the failure to complete a program in three years is an arbitrary marker of sorts, but it does give prospective students a window into what they can expect when enrolling in a program.

While RIT Saunders has a below-median retention rate, it is also the only school in the Top 100 to graduate 100% of its online MBA students within three years. Tied for 1st in rankings as having the best online programs, both Indiana University's Kelley and the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School scored grad rates in the eighties, at 82% and 87% respectively. Both those programs and many more, of course, offer students more flexibility to stretch out the part-time programs if their professional or personal demands soar during their time in the program. Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper online program, ranked fifth, boasted an impressive grad rate of 98%.

Those numbers are well above the median graduation rate for the Top 100 of 69%. The online MBA programs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Rice University, the University of Nevada, and Bryant University were among the most successful in getting students to finish their programs within a three-year timeframe (see below).


Some schools report that more than half of their students take more than three years to complete an online MBA. Stevens Institute of Technology reported the lowest graduation rate at 33%. Some of the lowest-performing schools include Rutgers’ School of Business in Camden, Poole, and North Carolina A&T State University.

For a B-School like Poole, which reports high retention numbers, the grad rate appears far less important.

Only 45% of students in 2022 finished three years after enrolling, but that’s in part because the program is formatted that way. It screams flexibility: students can graduate in as little as 21 months or as long as six years. Nichole Miller, Poole assistant dean, explains that students can adjust their schedules yearly to finish the 40 credit-hour program. Though the policy is currently under review, during the pandemic students could take up to a one-year leave of absence.

While schools like RIT Saunders and Foster advertise being less flexible, Poole caters to students that are continuing education when they are also in the middle of leading busy lives. Miller says students coming to Poole are what she sees as “mid-level managers” trying to advance their careers. They might have children, demanding work or spouses taking up most of their time. Stretching out their courses over a longer timeframe makes the program more viable for them, she adds.

Also while attending classes, students can choose to be in person in the evening or totally online or both, adding a new layer of flexibility. “The vast majority of our students, even if admitted as online students, only have taken a face-to-face class or vice versa,” she says. Poole is also looking to dabble into different formats next fall, such as a hybrid model, though, Miller points out, this could diminish a certain level of flexibility as it requires in-person appearances.

At the same time, Poole records a pristine level of retention. Miller says this success stems from implementing strict recruiting strategies, beginning with “the onset of initial touchpoints with candidates.” The school has modified how it screens applicants and interviews candidates, granting interviews to some even before an application is submitted.


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