US Schools Change Strategy and Launch Online MBAs

Spurred by the pandemic-induced boom in online education, top American institutions are dropping long-held opposition to Online MBAs

After years of resistance, some of America’s top business schools are starting to offer virtual MBA programs, spurred by the pandemic-induced boom in online education. The latest school to make this shift in strategy is the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which is now offering an executive MBA that participants can earn mostly remotely.

Half a century after establishing its residential EMBA, the school is launching its first-ever online option for older and more senior working professionals, starting in May 2023.

Wharton’s move follows hot on the heels of New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, which both launched part-time MBA online options in 2021.

It marks a shift in strategy, with many US schools traditionally running in-person MBA programs, says Caryn Beck-Dudley, president and CEO of AACSB International, the US-based business school accreditation agency.

“US business schools have had tremendous success with their in-person full-time MBA options, because it allows a very immersed experience that many students look forward to,” she says. “Many US schools were hesitant to offer fully Online MBAs for fear of losing those opportunities.”

Pandemic drives shift in portfolio strategy 

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and societies went into lockdown, business schools around the world had to pivot to online learning on short notice. That opened their eyes to how successful Online MBA programs could be, even those US schools with a long and successful history of running in-person courses.  

Erika James, dean of the Wharton School, says: “The past two and a half years have proven that high-quality academic programs can successfully extend beyond the traditional in-person classroom experience. By coupling best-in-class virtual instruction with meaningful residential learning opportunities, we can extend the reach of a Wharton MBA education.”

In the US, from 2017-18 to 2021-22, the number of schools offering MBA programs in a fully online format increased on average by 8.5 percent, according to AACSB International.

It marks a democratization of learning, with many students who work full-time now able to access high quality business education remotely, and at times convenient to them. “We aim to bring together our most diverse cohort of learners yet – business professionals whose location, work, or personal situations preclude them from extensive travel but who share a passion for learning,” says Brian Bushee, senior vice-dean of teaching and learning at Wharton.

Wharton’s new Online EMBA will be delivered 75 percent online and 25 percent in-person. Virtual instruction will take place in early morning or late evening hours aligned to eastern standard time (EST), so students can operate around work schedules and take part from multiple different time zones. The school expects to enrol business professionals from Asia, North America, Latin America and Europe.

MBAs: one size does not fit all

NYU Stern announced the launch of a new online option for its long-established Langone MBA program, which is delivered on a part-time basis, in November last year. Designed for working professionals, participants can complete the core curriculum online and then choose how to finish the elective portion of the MBA in a way that best meets their schedule and interests.

“We live in a world in which the norms and needs of organizations and the professionals who work for them continue to evolve, often with great speed,” says Raghu Sundaram, dean at NYU Stern. “We recognize that one size does not fit all and hope to be giving students more innovative ways to customize their MBA experience.”

The majority of the online core courses will be taught “live” with real-time interaction between faculty and classmates, on weeknights in the evening EST, with the remaining course content delivered through videos and other asynchronous elements. There are also one-week in-person modules in New York City.

UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business started offering a flexible online option for its part-time Evening and Weekend MBA Program last year. Students enrolled in the “Flex” option will take their core MBA courses online. After completing their first three semesters of the core curriculum, they can take their elective courses either on the Berkeley Haas campus or online.

The Flex option could be among the first of many similar programs yet to come. “I anticipate that many more, top-ranked US business schools will also launch online and blended MBA options in the near future,” says Miriam Burgos, academic director of the Online MBA program at USC Marshall School of Business in California. 

“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.”

S Sriram, associate dean for part-time MBA programs at University of Michigan Ross School of Business, agrees. “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,” he says.

“This, in turn, will increase the demand for Online MBA education in general. The global pandemic forced schools to adapt to remote instruction during the 2020-21 academic year. For most schools, the missing piece in the puzzle is integrating the synchronous instruction with highly effective asynchronous content.” 

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