Can Online MBAs Democratize Business Education?

Technology has made study far more affordable and accessible for low-income students from across the globe

Online education is often touted as a way to reach students who would otherwise be left behind, but many business schools still charge high fees for their digitally delivered MBAs. However, there are some options that are cheaper, targeting students from low-income backgrounds or those living precariously around the world.

In fact, while most institutions charge tens of thousands of dollars, there is an entirely free Online MBA run by the University of the People (UoPeople). The school charges nothing for tuition and has no campus or buildings, providing all its textbooks and other materials online, keeping its costs down. Students pay only for the assessments at the end of each course, though scholarships are available to offset the marginal costs.   

The student experience may be more limited compare with traditional MBAs, but the program highlights the potential for technology to democratize higher education and make it more accessible for the many, not the few. 

“The cost of an MBA today is so expensive, that many people who are qualified to achieve it, cannot afford it,” says UoPeople’s president, Shai Reshef. “UoPeople was set up to open the gates to higher education and to give an opportunity to those who don’t have it.” 

More institutions offering affordable, accessible Online MBAs

UoPeople is far from the only institution offering Online MBAs that are more affordable and accessible. While many schools blend classroom and online teaching, the iMBA launched by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is delivered entirely online. The online-only format allows the university to target students from a broader demographic, including from poorer areas without high-quality universities nearby. 

“It is through innovative technology that we can address inequality, delivering education for all,” says Brooke Elliott, associate dean at the Gies College of Business at University of Illinois.

“By delivering high-quality business education online, we are able to meet the needs of a global learning community, which means overcoming many barriers like socio-economic status and physical environment.” 

The tuition fee is a fraction of the price of other institutions, and students can take online courses for free to try them out, and pay if they want academic credit towards the MBA. The school has managed to keep the tuition fees low by building a scalable experience. For example, it replaced traditional textbooks with high quality video content and asynchronous assessments. 

[See the Top 10 Online MBAs for Accessibility]

The faculty deliver weekly live sessions to engage large numbers of learners simultaneously. “We strive to provide access broadly, scaling to meet the needs of thousands of learners all over the world,” says Elliott. “The mission of democratizing education means making it accessible to all, and cost is one of the most prohibitive factors to earning an MBA.” 

Elliott points out that the online format allows for much more flexibility, so students continue to work and support themselves financially while earning an education. “Technology has changed how we think about providing access and how we meet the needs of underserved learners,” she says. 

John Colley, associate dean for the Online MBA at the UK’s Warwick Business School, says that affordability is a problem for poorer students, some of whom have family dependents, sometimes are the first in their family to go to university, and are often the main breadwinners. 

“Accessibility is usually the top reason people do an Online MBA,” he says. “We get a lot of people doing the program who simply could not do a face-to-face version because they can’t afford to get away from their job, or have parental responsibilities.”

He adds that travel costs are also a barrier to a campus course. The lack of overheads for a physical campus or classroom facilities, and the potential for more fee income from larger class sizes that use fewer hours of live instruction from expensive professors, lowers schools’ running costs and reduces prices for students. 

“Facilities are extremely expensive to build and need renovating every several years,” says Colley. “The university demands a substantial return on its investment, levying a cost for us to use them, to cross-subsidize loss-making faculties.”

Online MBA admissions requirements are also a hurdle, for some applicants

Alongside keeping the cost of tuition relatively low, business schools like Warwick have strived to design admissions requirements that ensure accessibility but also preparedness for the rigorous of an MBA. Many schools now waive the traditional GMAT entrance exam for students with significant work experience, to attract more applications and increase diversity.  

This includes Warwick, which is flexible with its admissions requirements. The school will waive the requirement for a strong academic track record, reflecting concerns that the traditional need for an undergraduate degree, which can be expensive, acts as a barrier to graduate study. 

Warwick also offers generous scholarships to offset the cost of the Online MBA tuition, while the fee can be paid in four instalments, offering more financial flexibility for students. About 30 percent of the cohort will typically receive a scholarship in any given year, with the maximum award being 25 percent of the tuition fees. 

Regardless, most Online MBA students can expect a strong return on their fees paid because the degree acts as a career accelerator, with graduates typically gaining a significant pay bump during the program, of around 30-40 percent. Other students use an online program to switch careers into another function, industry or geographic location. 

“Education is not the only driving force behind social mobility, but it is certainly a strong one,” says Elliott at Gies. 
 

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