Applications to Online MBA Programs Buck Wider Downturn

Online MBA programs are experiencing a surge in popularity, defying the declining trend seen in traditional in-person MBA programs.

Online MBA programs are having their moment in the sun, with applications continuing to rise even as overall demand for graduate management education and traditional in-person MBA programs falls.

According to the latest figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), business schools worldwide reported higher application growth rates among their more flexible online, hybrid, evening, and weekend MBA programs compared to full-time, in-person programs in 2023.

This chimes with anecdotal observations from schools, which are chalking up the benefits of remote MBA study, which can be substantial. “An Online MBA has a unique value proposition that sets it apart from other formats: earn an MBA degree while you are working, raising a family, or taking a career break and make it fit around your life and from your preferred location. No need to travel, no need to be limited to local business schools, you get to study in the program that meets your needs,” states Rebecca Loades, director of MBA programs at ESMT Berlin.

She puts the recent application increase for online MBAs down to the ongoing need for continuing education, with these digital programs catering to typically senior working professionals who study alongside their full-time job. “It [the application rise] shows that businesses and their employees need to be nimble, agile and able to respond to unexpected events,” Loades says. “An MBA is a great way to develop operational, strategic, and leadership skills, so an MBA presents a sound investment decision that will reap rewards over the short- and long-term.”

A longer-term trend or a temporary blip?

Furthermore, she believes this now part of a longer-term trend, rather than a temporary blip. “Learning is no longer confined to an in-person experience and the different delivery modalities of an MBA gives students choice over where and how they study. That isn’t going to change.”

Mo Moeini, director of the Global Online MBA at Warwick Business School in the UK, adds context to GMAC’s figures: “The increase in applications for ‘flexible’ MBA programs reflects the fact that students needs and expectations are changing. This was already happening before COVID-19, but the pandemic has accelerated that process. Flexible and hybrid working has become the norm post-COVID and students expect the same flexibility from their study options.”

At the same time, he notes that technology is allowing institutions to improve the experience for those who choose to study remotely. For example, Warwick has just invested in a state-of-the-art “enhanced reality” platform and a range of other technologies to offer Online and hybrid MBA students a more immersive experience.

What is making Online MBA programs so attractive?

But there are a number of other considerations that could make an Online or hybrid MBA more attractive to applicants. “These range from the economic uncertainty fuelled by inflation and higher interest rates, which makes part-time study more attractive, to environmental impact as many online or hybrid courses require less travel,” adds. 

However, schools note that the choice to pursue an Online MBA program is a personal one, even though there are clear advantages in the current economic climate. “An Online MBA’s greatest advantage is this flexibility and the convenience of the program coming to the student rather than the student going to the program,” says Barbara Bennett Ostdiek, senior associate dean of degree programs at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, in the US.

But that does not mean a virtually delivered degree is not without its trade-offs. “In-person interaction is typically what applicants consider the biggest downside to an online degree,” says Bennett Ostdiek, adding that Rice’s Inline MBA program has campus immersions and synchronous coursework, rather than being exclusively a self-paced asynchronous program.

For students, the decision ultimately comes down to finding an MBA format that works for you, says ESMT’s Loades. “The skills required of students that study online – organization, comfort with technology, collaboration, communication, and self-motivation – have become highly valued by employers as how we work has changed,” she adds.

“Managing effective global virtual teams, leveraging technology to solve business issues and increase productivity, and thriving in a multi-modal work environment are all keys to future success and at the heart of the program.”

Warwick’s Moeini adds that there are also some clear benefits of online learning, especially in the current climate. “In an uncertain economic climate, an online MBA may be more appealing to employers. It also offers students increased opportunities to network with fellow students from around the globe. This has the added benefit that working with peers from other countries can help students to develop the capabilities to flourish in a diverse environment.”

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