Much has been written about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on full-time MBA programs — we know, we wrote it (and we’re still writing it). But what about part-time programs? After all, by far more MBA students enroll in the type of evening-and-weekend programs that allow them to continue working while they study. So how are these students dealing with lockdowns, all-remote instruction, and other consequences of Covid-19? Poets&Quants talked with three schools with highly ranked part-time MBAs and found that the answer is: much the same, with a few key differences.
At the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, the part-time MBA program has more than 600 more students than full-time. When the lights went out on campuses across the globe in early March, Carlson, having launched an online MBA last fall, was quickly able to transition to virtual instruction. Students were able to stay focused on their own needs: job security and family health and safety.
“I think many of our students were aware that we were going online, and it was happening very quickly,” Patrick McCarthy, director of student affairs, tells Poets&Quants of the part-time MBA, ranked 13th this year by U.S. News. “There was a quiet period there where we were not hearing from them, and it was somewhat odd, because in a normal face-to-face environment we would get phone calls and emails, or just simply run into a person in the hallway. And what we learned was, the students were adapting quickly or had experience in the online environment already, but they weren’t too worried about us and what we were going to deliver for them because they had some higher-level worries: Do I have enough job security right now? Do I have enough in the way of support for my family? Do I have enough supplies and groceries?
“So they experienced that full spectrum of need at the beginning, and we weren’t really necessarily a part of that initial piece.”
Part-time MBA students are by their nature more adaptable, says Philip Miller, assistant dean of MBA & MS programs at the Carlson School. They are less international, and therefore have fewer travel concerns; and most are employed, so they are accustomed to juggling responsibilities. Many have families, as well. “If you look at our average part-time student, they were already probably taking one face-to-face and one online course, just on average. So the transition was fairly modest,” Miller says. “It was a way bigger transition in their daily life than here, versus a full-time student who was probably taking five courses, all face-to-face, and for whom moving online all at once is a much bigger mental shift.”
THE STATE OF THE PART-TIME MBA
In the coronavirus era, part-time MBA programs are largely subject to the same vicissitudes as full-time programs. As always, though, they get far less attention. Long known as the “workhorses” of graduate business education, part-time programs have seen enrollment stagnate in recent years, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council. In its 2018 study, GMAC pointed to trouble signs: Since a huge drop-off in application volume after 2008, the programs have been on a gradual but consistent decline, and permanently sub-50% in volume growth. In GMAC’s 2016 Application Trends Survey, 43% of part-time MBA programs reported volume growth, compared with 50% that reported declining volume. Nearly half (49%) of all part-time MBA programs surveyed reported plans to reduce the size of their next class.
Last year, P&Q reported on GMAC’s Application Trends Survey, which mostly had to do with full-time programs; however, the report included a small item showing that a majority of responding schools reported total application declines among part-time lockstep MBA (53% report declines), part-time self-paced MBA (54%), and flexible MBA (56%) programs. Segmenting part-time lockstep and self-paced programs by their scheduling options showed similar results, as most weekend (56%) and evening (55%) programs were also down last year.
The attrition has occurred at even the top part-time programs: Between 2016 and 2020, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, currently the No. 1-ranked program by U.S. News & World Report, shrank from 1,366 students to 1,245, an 8.9% decline. No. 3 Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management declined only slightly, from 804 to 795 (1.1%), while UCLA Anderson School of Management, ranked fifth, saw a more significant loss, from 986 students to 857 (13.1%). No. 4 NYU Stern School of Business saw enrollment decrease by a whopping 242 students, 1,381 to 1,139, equaling 17.5%. No. 6 University of Michigan Ross School of Business went from 430 to 406 (-5.6%), and No. 9 Indiana University Kelley School of Business fell from 294 to 278 (-5.4%). The biggest drop-off for a prominent school was at No. 8 Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, which dropped from 143 to 74, a decline of nearly half (48.3%).
The most prominent school to buck the trend: No. 2 UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, the long-time ranking topper that was only recently ousted by Chicago Booth. The Haas School grew its part-time population from 802 in 2016 to 867 in 2020, an 8.1% increase.
Why the downturn in part-time MBA popularity? The proliferation of online MBA programs has played a major part. But other factors are at work, according to GMAC’s 2018 study: shifts in expectations in the population most likely to pursue an MBA part-time: millennials; a clog in the diversity pipeline that is preventing women and under-represented minorities from joining part-time programs in greater numbers, despite their rise in participation in other graduate programs; and the proliferation of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Suggestions to reverse the stagnation range from better engagement with employers to better marketing of the advantages of the format.
Will coronavirus exacerbate these issues? Will it hurt or help part-time MBAs? Time will tell.
IN THE TWIN CITIES, A LOT OF FRONT-LINE WORKERS
At Minnesota Carlson, where part-time students outnumber full-time 776 to 166, things are looking good so far in the current application cycle, Phil Miller says. Carlson’s part-time MBA has monthly deadlines starting May 15 and rolling admissions through the beginning of August.
“We’re actually up, between our part-time and online,” he says, noting that with about 45 students in the nascent online program, the total number of non-full-time MBA students at Minnesota currently stands at around 830. “We’re tracking ahead of where we were last year, and last year was up from the year before, so I’m hopeful. We’re up significantly in our online apps and we’re a little bit down in part-time. But collectively between those two, we’re up year-over-year in terms of apps for fall.
“Now what yield looks like, I don’t know. I mean we’ll see more as we get into the cycle, but I am cautiously optimistic that working professional programs have a different kind of dynamic than, ‘I have to quit my job to participate.'”
That last part is key for a school in the Twin Cities, where major health care companies and others that make essential products amid the pandemic are located. Reluctance — or inability — to leave a job in an essential market can mean lower enrollment in the full-time MBA; for the part-time, that unique stressor is less of a factor.
“Full-time is probably going to get a lot of, ‘I got fired and now I have time and I’m rethinking,’ but for people who want to continue on, we have so many companies here, and they’re doing quite well,” Miller says.
“One of the stresses in our market was some of the companies that our students come from, like 3M, Target, United Health — so a lot of our students are in the thick of it from the crisis. And so their employment prospects actually are pretty strong.”