Schools Reach New Audiences with “Blended” Online and Campus MBAs

Deans expect a more fluid relationship between virtual and real-world programs in the future

Many business schools speak of “bifurcation” in the market for graduate business education, with separate segments for online and offline MBA courses that attract very different demographics. Some are now betting that there is room for a third product: the blended MBA.

The University of San Diego School of Business started offering a blended program in 2016, with 60 percent of the curriculum delivered on campus and 40 percent delivered online. Kacy Hayes, assistant dean for graduate programs, says: “It offers students the best of both worlds: they get to know their faculty and classmates and complete some projects together on campus, while also benefiting from the flexibility that online learning provides.”  

The school’s blended MBA attracts a different group of students; those who are torn between a personalized educational experience and a program that offers convenience. This segment of the market has been bolstered by coronavirus, says Hayes. “Even before the pandemic, students appreciated the ability to mix onsite and hybrid courses.” Now, additional students have developed a new appreciation for it.

A growing market for blended MBAs

ESMT Berlin has tapped into this growing market for blended MBAs, launching last year program in a mixed format, delivered 80 percent online and 20 percent in class. It addresses a gap in the market for part-time programs, according to Nick Barniville, associate dean for programs at ESMT.

“The part-time MBA market in Europe has for a long time been covered by Executive MBA programs,” he says. “We have repositioned our EMBA to target a more senior audience, and launched a blended MBA for those who may be great MBA candidates but are not yet at the senior executive level.”

The blended format is convenient for many participants. “While we have a significant fly-in fly-out population, it is still predominantly a drive-in program, in that the vast majority of the participants live within 200km of Berlin or Munich, the two locations where we offer face-to-face modules,” says Barniville.

The blended MBA attracts working professionals who do not want to give up their job, but are looking for a content-rich program with a similar curriculum to a full-time MBA. “Previously, these applicants had nowhere to go unless they were in senior management positions, in which case they would go for an EMBA,” he adds.

Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder is also attracting a new pool of students with its blended MBA. “The flexibility of the program is attracting those with busy lives, and has also seen an increased enrollment by women and people of color [compared with] our other MBA programs,” says Kristi Ryujin, associate dean for graduate programs.

“Providing highly curated online video content that can be viewed anytime with Saturday in-person classroom experience where students are able to still engage with faculty, peers, and our business partners supports students desire to live a balanced life.”

‘Switching’ between online and in-class

Some schools take a different approach, enabling MBA students to switch between existing online and full-time courses. This includes the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. The model works because Tepper’s MBA programs are identical, with the same admissions standards and curriculum. “We think students want this kind of flexibility, but it works only when the online program mirrors the campus program and creates the opportunity for a seamless transition,” says Cindy McCauley, executive director for online masters programs at Tepper.

Many schools expect to see a more fluid relationship between online and offline MBA degrees in the future. “I do see this as a growth area,” says Barniville at ESMT. “I also see online students having more on-campus opportunities to mix with offline programs in general in the future.”

Tepper also offers a third option, a blended MBA program. “Our typical student is someone that is looking for a full MBA experience but who doesn’t want to leave their job, be it due to family obligations or the opportunity cost [of not working],” says McCauley. “They want the opportunity to build real relationships with their faculty and peers. They aren’t just looking to check the MBA box.”

Students in the blended course come to campus for a long weekend every six weeks. They take classes, participate in professional development activities, and build important relationships with their peers.    

McCauley has found that networking and social events, interactive team building sessions, and hands-on activities lend themselves to face-to-face meetings. But other parts of the MBA are better suited to the online environment, she says. “Straightforward content can easily be done remotely and even asynchronously, allowing students time to digest material before taking live online sessions to apply what they have learned, ask questions and participate in discussions.”

Hayes, at San Diego School of Business, says the split depends on the subject. She has found that a lot of students find it helpful to come to campus and go through quantitative problems (such as financial accounting) with faculty, and then practice on their own at home. For other subjects, such as marketing, students find it beneficial to learn some of the main concepts asynchronously and then use class time to dive into cases, simulations or group projects.

Choosing the right format will come down to each student’s individual goals, according to ESMT’s Barniville. “For senior leaders looking to understand the impact of their professional behaviors on others, and to discuss in a group setting how their learning can be applied to work, a face-to-face program could be better,” he says.

“For busy professionals who simply need content and tools, online could be better. For working professionals who want a bit of both, then blended might be the best way forward. It’s horses for courses, really.”

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