There are pure online MBA programs where a student will never meet a classmate or a professor face-to-face. And there are so-called hybrid or blended programs with one or two on-campus residencies and several domestic and global immersion trips.
And then there is Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business online program. At Tepper, there are no shortcuts. The program takes students 32 months to complete, and two-thirds of the curriculum is delivered on a synchronous basis. Translation: Your live and face-to-face sessions with your classmates and Carnegie Mellon professors account for the vast majority of the time you are in the program.
Six times per year, students attend three-day Access Weekends that run from Friday to Sunday. Add that up and it alone comes to nearly 50 days of in-person sessions. During those meetups students use Fridays to take exams and give presentations or attend corporate visits and career and leadership workshops. Each of their two courses for the mini-semesters meet three times on Saturday and Sunday, providing an unusual amount of time to get to know faculty and classmates.
But that’s not all. Students also can participate in a global capstone experience in either Germany or Hong Kong, where they will attend classes run by local partner schools. Through tours of local companies and meetings with business leaders, students get a close and personal view of how businesses operate in other parts of the world.
Other programs often claim that their online offerings boast the same tough admissions standards, the same faculty, and the same curriculum as their full-time, on-campus MBA programs. But precious few walk the talk. At Tepper the admission standards are the toughest of any online MBA program, and the online MBA experience truly has the same curriculum, faculty, and rigorous focus on leadership and analytics as the full-time MBA. The online students have full access to career services and leadership training as the on-campus MBA candidates. What’s more, Tepper allows students the opportunity to transfer between its MBA programs, so online students can opt to go full-time on campus.
Naturally, all of this comes at a price: a breathtaking $128,000 — the highest price tag on any online MBA. But, of course, Tepper isn’t just any online MBA program, and that is why the school tops the debut ranking by Poets&Quants of the best online MBAs. In each of three core categories — admission standards, academic and curricular experience, and career outcomes—Tepper outscores every other rival.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the most enthusiastic endorsement of a program, Carnegie Mellon scored a perfect 10 from responding alumni who would recommend the experience to others without qualification, according to our surveys. Tepper online alums also gave the school the top grade of 8.6 in judging the effectiveness of career advising in the program. And when it came to perceptions of the value of the alumni network and career opportunities, Tepper was in a virtual tie for first with an 8.75 average score.
Despite Carnegie Mellon’s unqualified endorsement from alums, when Dean Robert Dammon first contemplated an online option in 2013, he was less than all-in. “I was not certain it would work,” he says. Dammon was skeptical that the school could translate its prestigious on-campus MBA program into an equally prestigious online format.
What has made the online offering work for Carnegie Mellon, Dammon says now, is the school’s insistence on making it the equal of its full-time, on-campus MBA.
“What’s different about it is the degree to which the students have access to tenure-track faculty,” Dammon says. “That is important, because the quality of the education isn’t sacrificed one bit. The curriculum is the same and the admission standards are the same. They take the same exams and have the same assignments that our full-time students take. Students are working together face-to-face and with faculty. And because everything is the same, we allow students to transfer into the full-time program. If you are good enough to get into the online program, you need to be good enough to get into the full-time program.”
The school limits each section to roughly 30 students — the number of faces that can fit on a computer screen. “It’s taught in a way that doesn’t allow it to scale very well,” Dammon says. “If it was purely online, it would be scalable.” The latest enrolled class numbers 57 students, chosen from an applicant pool of just 147 candidates. The program has a 54% acceptance rate, with an average GMAT score of 658 and an average GRE score of 318, with 155 verbal and 163 quant scores. To get into the program, you must submit a GMAT or GRE score and pass an admissions interview. There are no exceptions.
This is not a no-frills or MBA-lite program. Online students at Tepper have full access to the school’s career services, on-campus recruiting, student clubs, and leadership coaching. The school’s live classes occur two evenings a week for 70-minute clips. Offline, students are expected to put in between three and five hours per class, working at their own pace, watching lectures recorded by professors, doing readings, completing assignments, and engaging in group work to augment and reinforce the classroom learning. The school advises students to expect between eight and 12 hours of work per week.
The field has changed immensely since Carnegie entered the market five years ago. “There are a lot of competitors now,” Dammon says. “They all have slightly different models, and it’s important for students to understand the differences and whether they will get direct access to faculty and classmates and a personalized degree experience. For some that may not be important. But we have a very high satisfaction level, higher than even our full-time program.”
Tepper offers just one intake a year, in August, and enrolls fewer than 60 students at a time. Compared to some of the other programs, this is small, intimate and elite. The total student enrollment in the program is only 137 — a fraction of the students enrolled in UNC’s MBA@UNC program, where there are now more than 1,800 online students.
The cost and time commitments of Tepper’s program will, no doubt, make many would-be applicants look at other options that cost less and that require fewer face-to-face sessions and less time to complete. But then again there are pure online MBAs and there are hybrid programs — and there is Tepper, in a class by itself.