How to Choose the Right Online MBA Program

The number of digitally delivered MBAs is reaching a critical mass

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many business schools were reluctant to launch Online MBAs, fearing they could cannibalize demand for full-time programs while putting downward pressure on tuition fees. But growing demand for online courses triggered by coronavirus has forced administrators to rethink their position, leading to a range of new programs, including from ESMT Berlin, which will launch its first fully Online MBA later this year.

The number of digitally delivered MBAs is reaching a critical mass, with figures from AACSB International, an accreditation agency, showing that 39 percent of schools offered one last year, up from 22 percent five years before that. The trend is accelerating, which is increasing the variety of course options for students, but it’s also posing a dilemma: how can applicants choose the right program?

The quality of online teaching can vary significantly, in terms of the technology used by students to study and interact, and the availability of face-to-face networking events and access to career services.

“Not all online programs are built or delivered the same way — they vary a great deal,” says Bradley Staats, associate dean of MBA programs at Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina.

He says it’s important that programs have residential modules that bring students face to face to learn from and network with each other.

What to look for in an Online MBA

Markus Perkmann, academic director of the Online MBA at London’s Imperial College Business School, stresses that a good virtual program includes live sessions with professors. “For the best learning outcomes and flexibility, you want to combine self-study with interaction,” he says. It’s also crucial that the MBA is taught by top faculty, preferably those who also teach in a school’s other MBA programs, says Perkmann.

Equally important are residential periods that allow you to make lasting connections with other students, faculty and alumni. Consider too, whether the MBA is cohort-based — that is, if all students take the core modules together. “This will allow you to learn from each other and work together,” says Perkmann.

Rick Doyle, head of marketing for degree programs at ESMT Berlin, says applicants should look for a course that fits their personal and professional goals. “A top-ranked, accredited school with a diverse student body, alumni network and faculty are usually always good indications of a quality program,” he says.

Definitely ask for a demonstration of the online learning experience and to speak with current students, Doyle says. “We have a video and demo on our website, so that applicants can experience the learning experience before enrolling.”

George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business, says applicants should look for which business school and experience fits them best.

“We’re all teaching some form of financial accounting, organizational behavior and data analysis,” he points out. “It’s the ethos of each school — its core values, what faculty are passionate about and where students and alumni fit into those plans — that sets us all apart.”

Stacy Blackman, a US based admissions consultant, says the accreditation and reputation of the Online MBA and its parent institution are key factors to prioritize in evaluating different course options. “There are so many online vendors that have proliferated during the pandemic; the brand of the MBA will influence the caliber of the program and the strength of the degree on your resume,” she says.

She recommends looking at the year of inception of the online program, noting that new brands may carry risks, and consider whether there are networking events with students and prospective recruiters.

There are other considerations when choosing an Online MBA. Accreditation status — from global, reputable organizations such as AMBA, EQUIS or AACSB — is a good signal of program quality, says Julie Hodges, associate dean for MBA programs at Durham University Business School.

The best programs also emphasize how to put theories, models and concepts into practice, she adds. “Students should be able to directly apply their learning to their work environment.”

Is it becoming harder to land a spot in an Online MBA?

The Gies College of Business launched its Online MBA course in 2016 and the “iMBA” program has grown strongly ever since. But that has raised competition for a place. Aaricka Hellberg, coordinator of learner relations, says students need to be able to demonstrate their “fit” to win admission to the iMBA. “If you apply to a program that targets a certain profile of student, and you are not a good fit, you might not benefit as much from enrolling.”

She adds that applicants should focus on the parts of their MBA application where they can highlight their strengths. “Dedicate yourself to crafting a great essay” and putting in a strong interview performance, she says. “Make sure to illustrate your goals, how an MBA will help you to meet them, and what you can contribute to your peers and colleagues,” says Hellberg.

Sameer Kamat, the founder of MBA Crystal Ball, an admissions agency, says Online MBA programs are under pressure to build credibility. “This means that the top online programs are likely to become more selective in the coming years,” he says.

“They’ll look for students who’ve got clarity of what they want in their career, and how the Online MBA will help them get there.”

He adds that students will also need to demonstrate their ability to multi-task and juggle their work with studies and family life.

Some other considerations when choosing an Online MBA:

-   If an Online MBA programs is ranked in a publication like The Financial Times or US News and World Report, that’s a good signal of program quality

-   Some business schools publish employment reports, where you can see the career paths of Online MBA graduates

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