Growth Streak in Online MBA Applications Set to Continue

Competition for a place in the next academic year is heating up for prospective students

Interest in Online MBAs has been turbocharged since Covid-19 struck and increased the relevance of online learning and digital leadership. And the world’s top business schools expect the growth streak in applications to continue into the next academic year.

“We believe demand for online programs is here to stay. [We] saw growth in this sector start before the pandemic,” says Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs at ESMT Berlin. “We’ve actually been investing in education technology since 2017 as a result of a growing number of requests from businesses seeking blended executive education.”

ESMT launched its first fully Online MBA this year, and Loades says transformation through learning and development will always be needed, whether as lifelong learning for individuals, or to help companies develop and retain talent. The pandemic has only heightened this need.

“What COVID-19 has done is increase the number of learners willing to consider online options while also pushing providers to develop quality online learning experiences,” she says.  

But the decision to enter an Online MBA program isn’t one taken lightly. Students have varied motivations for going back to school, but what unifies them is a recognition of the importance of investing in their personal and professional development.

“What the current situation has illustrated is that businesses, and their employees, need to be nimble, agile, and able to respond to unexpected events,” says Loades. “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.

Moreover, the pandemic has made students and professors alike much more comfortable with technology, speeding up the adoption curve. “We are constantly improving,” Loades says. “Our faculty and learning designers are able to create experiences and communities that were simply not possible before the pandemic.”

The flexibility and convenience of an Online MBA

From the student perspective, where an online program has huge value is in the flexibility and convenience, with physical barriers to study removed. Students do typically complete a certain amount of work each week, but they are in control and can make the program fit around family, work, and travel. 

Another benefit is that students can immediately apply what they are learning to their current job. Putting principles into practice means the education can demonstrate impact from day one.

“The online mode of delivery reduces some of the opportunity costs of pursuing an MBA,” says Paulo Prochno, assistant dean for online programs at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business in the US.

“The year of the pandemic was an exception, as many people thought it was a good moment to pursue an MBA, given the uncertainties in the work environment. But now that most companies are hiring again, the need to get an MBA is still there.”

So he expects the boost in applications to continue on into the next academic year. “With the forced move to online work brought [about] by the pandemic, many people who didn’t think that they could perform well in an online setting changed their minds,” says Prochno.

At the same time, after more than a year fully online work, many professionals are feeling the need for in-person interactions. “With that, programs that offer more flexibility in shifting from online to in-person [teaching] as needed will be increasingly more attractive,” he adds.

More competition for an Online MBA place

Of course, with an increase in attractiveness comes heightened competition for an Online MBA place. What is his advice for standing out in the application process?

“Highlight your skills and professional achievements,” Prochno advises prospective students. “A crucial element in a good MBA program is the exchange among students, so applicants need to show they will bring interesting perspectives to the classroom discussions.”

At ESMT, Loades also looks for students who will add to the class and who are collaborative. But the German school is also looking for people who can demonstrate the ability to commit to something, and complete it.

“Thriving means that an applicant has given thought to how the program will fit around their existing commitments: that they are able to prioritize competing tasks, can juggle multiple initiatives, and can show focus and drive,” says Loades.

“We also like candidates to demonstrate that they’ve thought about why they want to join the program, and how the MBA will help them realize their personal or professional goals.”

To determine which course is specifically best for an applicant, there are a number of key and important factors to take into consideration, according to Markus Perkmann, academic director of MBAs at Imperial College Business School in London.

“The Online MBA has to provide electives that you are most [interested] in and keen to study further,” he says. “[And] it has to have the right relationship between interactive online content and scheduled online classes that fits your learning style and flexibility requirements.”

Also consider extracurricular activities, he says, like whether or not there is an opportunity to take in-class electives, or global trips, alongside how employers view the business school.

One other consideration is how international and diverse you want your classmates to be, Perkmann adds. “European Online MBA programs tend to have a more global participation than the online programs in the US, for example, which tend to have a larger domestic audience.”

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