Top-Tier US Business Schools Enter Online MBA Market

Faculty hesitancy and concerns over interactivity have been quashed as working professionals demand greater flexibility in their studies

Demand for Online MBAs programs has been rising for several years, and the coronavirus pandemic turbocharged the growth in provision of these courses. Yet, the expansion of training differs greatly by region, and at the top end of the market, few elite business schools in the US have launched online versions of their MBA degrees due to faculty hesitancy and concerns over interactivity.  

That is starting to change, however, with some top tier institutions staking out a claim in the market for Online MBA programs. The latest among them is the Haas School of Business at University of California Berkeley. This summer the school announced the creation of an online option for its part-time Evening and Weekend MBA program, which is ranked second by US News.

The new “Flex” option offers the same curriculum and faculty and the same Berkeley Haas MBA degree in a highly customized and flexible “blended” online and on-campus format.

“With Flex, we prioritized flexibility in attendance to meet the demands of busy working professionals,” says Jamie Breen, assistant dean of MBA programs for working professionals at Haas. “The program allows learning from anywhere— so students don’t have to sacrifice quality. They are offered the same high-quality MBA, without the commute.”

He reveals that Haas started planning the move into the online market several years ago. While coronavirus delayed its implementation, the pandemic allowed faculty to experiment with different teaching approaches that they are now incorporating.

“Online learning has changed what’s possible in an MBA program and the pandemic has accelerated inevitable changes,” says Breen.

The first group of about 60 Flex students will enroll in July of 2022. They will take their core MBA courses online. After completing their first three semesters of the core curriculum, students can take their elective courses either in person on the Berkeley Haas campus or online.

More top US business schools moving into the Online MBA market

Haas is one of relatively few top tier US schools running a digitally delivered MBA, but that’s likely to change. “We believe that these sorts of programs are here to stay and are an integral part of the future of business schools,” Breen says. “We are already seeing strong interest from applicants — and we believe that other business schools will follow with their own online options over the next few years.”

Some have already moved into the market for online education. The University of Michigan Ross School of Business launched an Online MBA, in 2019.

“There is a growing demand for flexible MBA education among individuals who do not want to pursue a traditional full-time MBA degree,” says S Sriram, associate dean for part-time MBA programs at Ross.

In addition, traditional part-time MBA programs are tied to location. “We wanted to give people who do not live close to our Ann Arbor campus the opportunity to experience Michigan Ross,” he says.

Sriram chalks up the program’s success since its launch two years ago, including maintaining rigorous admissions standards. “Our Online MBA students lead our part-time programs in terms of work experience, standardized test score, and undergraduate GPAs,” says Sriram.

“We have also had great success in building our infrastructure in terms of our state-of-the-art Digital Education Studio,” he adds. The Studio creates engaging and immersive content.

More Online MBA programs on the way?

As for why more leading US schools have not launched Online MBAs, Sriram points to a couple of potential factors. For a program to be successful, it needs the support of the school’s top faculty. That might be difficult in some cases, as some professors have traditionally been skeptical of online education. 

Moreover, if online courses are not designed well, they can lack interaction between participants and instructors. “A lot of top schools are probably grappling with the issue of how to replicate the in-class experience in an online setting,” says Sriram.

But, as more students are looking to pursue a high-quality degree without leaving their jobs to earn an MBA from a top school, programs with online components are becoming more in demand. The global pandemic forced schools to adapt to remote instruction during the 2020-21 academic year, demonstrating what is possible with online education.

“I anticipate that many more, top-ranked US business schools will launch Online and blended MBA options in the near future,” says Miriam Burgos, academic director of the Online MBA program at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

“Busy business professionals will continue to seek increasingly flexible graduate school options — particularly in a world where COVID has accelerated the pace at which organizations accept and incorporate technologies that enable virtual collaboration,” she adds.

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