At a watershed moment for graduate-level business education, more full-time MBA students were enrolled in online programs than residential programs during the 2020-2021 academic year. According to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools (AACSB), the leading accrediting agency for business schools, 45,038 students were enrolled in online programs last year, while 43,740 were in person.
The shift to online courses during the pandemic has accelerated the growth of online MBAs, but trends have been going in that direction for years. AACSB data shows that the number of accredited business schools offering fully online MBA programs increased by 54% between the 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 academic years, and an additional 85% between that date and 2021-2022.
“The growth has been slow and steady,” said Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University. “The pandemic and the shift to working and learning online just took this trend that was already in place and accelerated it.”
It helps that employers have a better acceptance of online MBA programs in recent years. A study published last December by the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy found that 71% of employers now consider business degrees acquired online to be of equal or superior quality to traditional programs. This is 10% more than in 2019.
“Today, a strong majority of employers will host your online MBA,” Gallagher said. “But that would have been a minority just seven or eight years ago.”
When the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s Gies School of Business launched its full-time online MBA program in 2016, there were only a few online MBA programs available at business schools. accredited and highly ranked. Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business launched the first one-way ticket in 1999, but when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill launched [email protected] in 2011, it set off a “chain reaction” of similar programs at other top-tier accredited business schools, Gallagher said.
W. Brooke Elliott, associate executive dean for academic programs at Gies, who helped launch the iMBA program in 2014, said the school was partly driven by the growth of online MBAs, but it was disrupting a market competitive and differentiated. candidates were also important factors.
“The traditional MBA market is fiercely competitive, especially for public institutions,” Elliott said. “We were trying to think about how we could be innovative.”
Elliott highlighted the accessibility of online programs compared to more expensive and less flexible residential programs. Tuition for the iMBA costs around $23,000 per year, barely a third of the average price for full-time residential MBA programs. As a result, Gies has seen its pool of online MBA candidates undergo significant demographic shifts.
“About a quarter to a third of our candidate pool is still the typical MBA student…the rest of them are exceptional students with great stories, but higher education just wasn’t accessible to them,” Elliott said.
Cost wasn’t the only factor that widened the pool of candidates for Gies. The flexibility of the program has attracted a large number of students whose extenuating circumstances would otherwise prevent them from pursuing a residential MBA, from mothers with young children to those serving in the military. Elliott said they even have candidates living on submarines.
“It’s one of the most interesting things about online education…if you look at the learners you draw, they’re diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, background and experiences, where they live in the world,” Elliott said. “You would never see that in a traditional MBA program.”
Gies’ iMBA program has grown significantly every year since its launch, growing from an initial cohort of 116 students in 2016 to over 4,600 students this academic year. In fact, it proved so effective and cost-effective that Gies stopped offering a residential MBA altogether in 2019.
If the online MBA was on the rise before COVID-19, the pandemic has put it into hyperdrive. When Gies stopped offering residential MBAs, approximately 2,600 students were enrolled in its iMBA program. During the pandemic, its enrollment grew by an additional 2,000 students, thanks in part to Gies laying the groundwork early for successful online-only business education, Elliott said.
“The education market has been radically changed by the pandemic,” she said. “Even the strongest residential programs with the greatest reputations…did not have the expertise or ability to, on the fly, develop and deliver a [program] which was designed to be online.
The best business schools are moving online
In 2010, Harvard Business School Dean Nihit Nohrita was asked if the top business school in the country would ever explore online degree programs. His answer was dry and definitive: “Not in my lifetime.”
This attitude was shaped by the assumption that online MBA programs were inherently substandard, Gallagher said, in part because of their association with for-profit institutions without AACSB accreditation, such as the University of Phoenix. and DeVry.
“If you go back nearly 20 years, there were very few top business programs offering online degrees,” Gallagher said. “A few years later, the market had changed in such a way that they started to adopt it.”
In the mid-2010s, schools like Harvard and Stanford began offering online courses toward business degrees. But it wasn’t until after the pandemic, when expanding online learning became a temporary necessity, that the top 10 business schools began exploring flexible options for earning most or all of the money. an online MBA.
One of these new offerings comes from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. The school’s new Flex option, which will allow a cohort of students to earn their MBA online part-time while providing optional in-person opportunities, is enrolling its inaugural class.
Jaime Breen, Haas assistant dean for MBA programs, said applications for the Flex option were “as strong or stronger” than the normal pool for the part-time program, and applications from women and Active military personnel have increased significantly.
At a large business school like Haas, concerns about diluting the school’s brand or providing substandard education can be expected to arise regarding online program offerings. But Breen said support for Flex was widespread among faculty, alumni and current students, in part, she says, due to the pandemic.
“A lot of people have been forced to have this [online] experience, and it challenged their inherent biases” about online learning, she said.
The Flex option is part of the Haas School Weekend and Evening MBA program and aims to provide more flexibility to a population of students who already need it. Gallagher, the center’s director, said these part-time, in-person programs are most likely to be replaced by online options in the near future.
“There will always be a market for a full-time, in-person experience,” he said. “The professional public working part-time has mostly moved online.”
Breen said while there are no concrete plans for a full-time online MBA program at Haas, the school is not ruling out such conversations. They’re watching the growing online MBA market and the upcoming inaugural year of the Flex program closely, for signs they should have them.
“It’s a way for us to learn and gain experience,” she said. “Part of the rationale behind [Flex] is that we need that capability to respond to the market where it is.
Ahead of the curve?
Business and business-adjacent programs have long been at the forefront of online education. In 2016, there were nearly 7,500 online programs in the fields of business, management or marketing, nearly 3,000 more than the closest competing field, according to a 2019 study by the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.
Elliott, of Urbana-Champaign, said the launch of the iMBA program has inspired other online graduate programs across the university, including one at the Granger School of Engineering.
“Business schools are a leading indicator of what could happen in other areas of higher education,” Gallagher said, adding that other graduate programs, especially professional degrees, will likely follow. the same trends as MBAs.
In many cases, they already are. According to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly a third of all graduate students were enrolled full-time in online-only degree programs before the pandemic.
“When all of these online programs started many years ago, the narrative and the strategic assumption was that remote learning was for students who otherwise couldn’t come to campus,” Gallagher said. “That has since been proven to be false.”
For Elliott, the dissipation of hesitancy and stigma around online program offerings means more opportunities for disadvantaged and non-traditional students to earn graduate degrees and, subsequently, become more socially and economically mobile.
“Going online is a way to make higher education accessible,” Elliott said. “There are millions of people we don’t serve as academic institutions. And I think if we come together and change the way we think about education, we can do real social good.