Choosing Between an Online or Residential MBA

Picking an online program over campus study comes with important trade-offs

The pandemic-led boom in online education has resulted in the large-scale adoption of Online MBAs, which are now a serious alternative for learners compared to a traditional campus MBA. But there are key distinctions between online and offline MBA programs, meaning that prospective students will need to make trade-offs when choosing which one is right for them.

“This is certainly a choice that should not be taken lightly. Prospective students need to understand what their goals are and what is most important for them,” says Meg Lukus, associate director of online masters programs at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, in the US.  

“If you’re considering an Online MBA program you are likely looking for flexibility in your personal, professional and academic life,” she says. For the Tepper Online MBA, all students enter the program working full-time and often are balancing challenging careers, personal and family obligations, all while completing the rigorous curriculum.

“A major advantage to pursuing an Online MBA is that students can immediately apply their career and leadership development in their professional spaces, while being able to continue to live in their preferred cities,” says Lukus. “You don’t have to pause your life to complete a top tier Online MBA, which is very appealing to prospective students seeking flexibility.”

Pandemic drives digitalization of MBA programs

Vlerick Business School in Belgium launched its Online MBA back in 2018, but there has been a marked increase in digitally delivered programs since the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020.

“Online MBA programs overall have seen an increase in participants, and after Covid and adapting to online teaching, an increasing number of schools are exploring launching an Online MBA,” says Yolanda Habets, head of MBA programs at Vlerick.

However, she says the numbers are not necessarily picking up in how it was projected for numerous reasons: budgets, time commitment, and Zoom fatigue. “In an Online MBA, most interactions with fellow participants and faculty will be through an online platform. For some, this is a more complex way to build a strong network and exchange professional experiences,” Habets explains.

“Social interactions will have to be scheduled separately, whereas during a residential module, they happen organically before and after the class sessions and during the coffee and meal breaks.”

The biggest downside to an Online MBA: interaction 

George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Texas, agrees that limited in-person interaction is typically what applicants consider the biggest downside to an online degree.

“For this reason, our Online MBA program has campus immersions and synchronous coursework, rather than being a self-paced asynchronous program,” he adds. “These aspects of our program allow students to capture the benefits and convenience of an online program while still ensuring meaningful satisfaction and networking outcomes.”

Conversely, the biggest downside to a campus program for applicants considering both formats is the lack of convenience. To attend a campus program, students must typically be on campus.

Andrews says: “A residential MBA may be more favorable for recent college graduates who are seeking a more immersive experience with the opportunity to build a network and interact with their peers frequently each day. An individual may also consider a residential program if they were accepted into an elite institution that only offers a residential option.”

Boundary between MBA formats blurs

But like his peers at other schools, Andrews sees a future in which the distinction between online and offline is blurred, but not removed entirely. “More of the elite institutions are moving online with either fully online or hybrid offerings,” he says. 

“We believe that the recognition of online and campus MBAs as equal degrees will continue to increase, but that the ability for institutions to offer different modalities to different consumers will continue to be of utmost importance.”

Vlerick’s Habets believes that we are not far from a future where online learning journeys offer the exact same engaging learning and networking experience as an on-campus program. 

“Many business schools also offer a residential module at the start of their Online MBA in order for the cohort to get to know each other and the faculty and to strengthen the relationship between the students and with the business school,” she adds.

Similar to companies, business schools are re-thinking what is possible for residential and online programs. That said, while being open to more hybrid experiences, institutions insist that they will not sacrifice the quality of the curricular experience.

“As educational providers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students receive an exceptional academic experience in the format that they chose to pursue,” says Lukus, at Tepper. 


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