Does Online Learning Democratize the MBA?

In theory, technology should make MBAs cheaper and more readily available to learners across the globe, but barriers remain

An MBA can be a transformative experience that leads to a massive increase in salary, but degrees from the top business schools do not come cheap. The high cost of a traditional, full-time MBA program has been a barrier to many under-represented minority candidates, including the lost earnings from one or two years spent out of the workforce in order to study.

It has long been assumed that Online MBA degrees can improve access to graduate business education. In theory, technology should make MBAs cheaper and more readily available to learners across the globe, because they do not have to quit their job and relocate to return to school. Online students can take classes at times convenient to them, from anywhere in the world, while holding down a full-time role.

“The number of people connecting to the internet across the world is continuing to grow, which means more and more people can access education via the internet,” says John Colley, associate dean at the UK’s Warwick Business School. 

“We have people from all over the world studying our Distance Learning MBA, which is mostly online. Two of the top countries for students are Nigeria and South Africa. We also have many students from the United Arab Emirates and South America.”

A rich international experience

For the most part, Online MBA courses in general still appeal largely to local learners, mainly because some countries restrict access to visas for online foreign students or do not recognize digital degrees from overseas institutions.

But Warwick has strived to ensure its cohorts are as diverse as possible in order to give students a rich international experience. “We invest heavily in the technology and platform behind the Distance Learning MBA each year in an effort to continuously improve the student experience,” says Colley. “Also, unlike a lot of Online MBA courses, ours is taught totally by our academics, giving students the cutting edge research and latest thinking to take back to their companies.”

While this may attract students including people from abroad, all this investment comes at considerable expense, which means that many schools charge similar rates for their residential and Online MBA courses, despite lower overheads from bricks-and-mortar teaching facilities in virtual programs. 

Some schools use economies of scale to lower the tuition fees for online degrees by enrolling larger numbers of students than would be possible on campus. But some academics argue that smaller class sizes improve academic outcomes.  

“Tuition for online programs varies dramatically across schools,” says Brad Staats, senior associate dean for strategy and academics at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in North Carolina. “Typically what you pay is what you get. If a program is just designed as a MOOC then, yes, it could be delivered very cheaply. On the other hand, there are opportunities to invest and enrich the experience.”

Network-building opportunities

He says that UNC’s Online MBA is designed to educate and create network-building opportunities such as small, personalized classes and in-person gatherings. But because of logistical challenges, the program attracts mostly domestic students who already live and work in the US. 

“Logistical challenges complicate global delivery [such as] time zones for [a live] class but we likely will see programs grow more global as time passes,” says Staats. Schools may well broaden their appeal as their brands develop overseas.

Despite the sometimes high costs of Online MBAs, Staats says they can play an important role in driving upward economic mobility because of the high salaries achieved by graduates. “MBAs from strong universities continue to show a positive ROI [return on investment],” he adds. “Not only can MBA programs create access to opportunity for individuals, but the content we teach enables graduates to go on to create opportunities for others.”

Other administrators have said that Online MBA programs will play a more limited role in tackling economic inequality because they attract people who are already well established in their careers.

Boosting earning power

Most graduates will go on to boost their already high earning power. “An MBA is a great way to prove to employers you are ready to take the next step in your career. It gives students the all-round perspective of a business from operations and finance to marketing and design thinking, which is needed to move into executive positions,” says Warwick’s Colley.

His graduates regularly move into positions at companies like Accenture, Amazon, General Electric and JPMorgan. Importantly, they can continue earning while they study. “The Online MBA provides the best value for money and its flexibility means people can stay in their job while studying to further their career,” Colley says.

At Warwick, students have up to four years to complete their Online MBA, but Colley recommends a period of around two years part-time, in order to make time for professional and personal commitments.

“So when a busy period hits at work or you need to spend more time with your family you can put your studies on hold and come back to them,” he says. “This helps those who don’t have the privilege of being able to take a year off to do a full-time MBA.”

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