Online MBAs Overtake On-Campus Programs

More people are enrolling in digital than campus-based MBAs, a tipping point in acceptance of online education

The Online MBA has overtaken the campus-based MBA as the most popular MBA degree format in the US, the largest and most important market for graduate business education.

More people are enrolling in Online MBAs than campus-based programs in the US, according to new figures that show a tipping point in acceptance of online education.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, 45,038 students were enrolled in Online MBAs in the US, compared to 43,740 in full-time programs, according to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which accredits MBA programs.

This shift means the online format has overtaken the traditional in-person set-up as the most popular mode of study for MBAs, the flagship graduate business degree.

“Online MBAs are already firmly established in the market and the growing number of enrolments highlight how these programs are becoming a popular choice,” says Markus Perkmann, academic director of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School in London. “Online education is past the stage of general acceptance and the growing number of students and offerings reflects this.”

How the pandemic sped-up the adoption of Online MBA programs

Many Online MBA programs enroll substantially large cohorts, so the figures may reflect their sheer size rather than actual preference for remote study. However, even before the pandemic, Online MBA programs were growing in popularity.

“What the pandemic did was accelerate the changes needed to bring online learning into the mainstream,” says Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs at ESMT Berlin. “The past two years have seen a radical shift in how we work, and in society’s attitudes to technology-enabled work and study. Coupled with technological advancements, these factors have fueled the growth in interest and provision of online learning.”

The flip side of the coin is that this forced online activity has generated a strong interest in face-to-face formats in 2022, with demand for full-time, campus-based MBAs soaring. However, Online MBAs are preferred by many mid-career professionals who aren’t in a position to study for a full-time program and who value flexibility.

“Online education certainly remains a key option for those seeking maximum flexibility, and it is the basis for an ever-greater democratization of education,” says Greta Maiocchi, chief customer management officer at POLIMI Graduate School of Management in Milan.

Online MBAs have found a new and potentially much larger audience of people for whom digital is the only way they want to upgrade their credentials. “The growth of Online MBAs has opened up accessibility to a broader user base,” says Imperial’s Perkmann.

Online MBAs are clearly no longer a niche option, and have become as large and selective in their student intakes as their campus-based courses. However, schools say the two types of programs cater to different demographics. “Each program serves different parts of the market,” says Perkmann.

Online MBAs are becoming a degree of choice for many professionals whose careers are well established and who don’t want to lose momentum in their industry, he says. “The online format allows them to study at any location around the world and at the university of their choice, giving them the flexibility to plan their studies around their personal and professional life.”

Campus-based MBAs are still valuable 

However, the full-time campus based MBA has many advantages to those who can afford to take a year or two out of the workplace to study full-time, not least richer social and networking experiences.

“What a growth in online programming will do is ensure that business schools are better utilizing in-person time,” says ESMT’s Loades. “Learning is a social experience and, while technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, there are still differences between online and in-person experiences.”

Before Covid, many course administrators worried that online education would cannibalize their campus offering. But what the pandemic has shown is that the two courses can work in harmony. 

Many Online MBAs already offer the option to study for some course units on campus. “We strongly believe in hybrid formats that encapsulate the best of both worlds,” says Maiocchi, at POLIMI. “The in-person experiential section remains a fundamental component, but it is equally important to meet the candidates’ need for flexibility.”

Anuj Mehrotra, dean of the George Washington University School of Business in the US, says both online and in-person programs have a strong place in the market.

But he, too, expects crossover and hybrid components across the different modalities. “After increased experience with online teaching, many faculty view this modality as a tool in their pedagogical toolkit,” says Mehrotra. “Both in-person and online formats have their own advantages, and we’ll likely see programs leveraging those advantages for richer hybrid programs.”

He says this may be a tipping point as the pandemic has influenced not only the minds of students but also helped faculty realize how they can use online study to deliver high quality education.

However, the infrastructure and technology needed to deliver a top notch digital learning experience is a big investment and business schools will need to decide whether they see this as worthwhile, or if they should focus on other modes of study.

“Covid certainly provided the catalyst for those on the fence or even those who may have not previously considered online programs to be valuable,” says Mehrotra. “But the growth of acceptance of online programs will be related to excellence and high quality experiences in online programs. Likely, we’ll see a shakeout that will favor high quality online programs with the best instructional design.”

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