While applications and enrollments in full-time MBA programs have declined for five consecutive years, demand for online MBAs has exploded. More than 300 business schools in the U.S. alone now offer online MBA options and scarcely a month goes by when yet another program pops up. This fall alone, the University of Michigan and UC-Davis are among the newcomers who have welcomed their first cohorts of students. In less than four years, the $22,000 iMBA from the University of Illinois’ Gies School of Business has boosted enrollment to more than 2,500 online students from 114 students.
How to make sense of this vastly expanding market? For the third year in a row, Poets&Quants is ranking the best of the bunch: 35 quality online MBAs that offer students an exceptional educational experience. This year, there’s a new winner, though a familiar one that has risen to the top. After dipping to fourth place last year, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business regained first place in our annual ranking of the best online MBAs in the U.S. Tepper topped the inaugural list three years ago. The school’s part-time hybrid program includes live online sessions, in-person weekends, and traditional online course structures and is also the most expensive online program in the world with a $137,200 price tag.
The high price and the unusually high amount of face-to-face contact in Tepper’s program make it something of an anomaly. Tepper’s program, in fact, reinforces the notion that not all online programs are created equal. Many have no in-residence sessions. Some don’t even have live Internet classes. Others offer little career development guidance. So it’s important to look beyond a school’s rank or price to decide whether you are a fit for any of these online options.
Yet, when it comes to the absolute quality of an online MBA experience, the Poets&Quants‘ ranking is an ideal guide for prospective students who don’t want to quit their jobs but want this quintessential business credential. Following Tepper on this year’s list is Indiana University’s Kelley Direct Online MBA program, which rose up one spot from its third-place finish last year. Last year’s winner, the University of California Marshall School of Business, is right behind Indiana Kelley in third place. Lehigh University’s College of Business continues its slow climb up the rankings into fourth. The school was sixth two years ago and fifth last year. Rounding out the top five is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, which also has been moving up in the past three years.
At No. 6, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management surged seven spots from last year’s 13th placement. After Isenberg, the Foisie School at Worcester Polytechnic University is the first of four newcomers to make this year’s ranking at No. 7. Last year’s second-place school, Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, comes in at No. 8. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln slipped one spot from No. 8 last year to No. 9 this year. And rounding out the top-10 is Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business, which boosted a dozen spots from 22nd place.
Top Ten Online MBA Programs of 2020
- Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business, $137,200
- Indiana University Kelley School of Business, $74,520
- University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, $106,197
- Lehigh University College of Business, $39,600
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, $125,589
- University of Massachusetts-Amherst Isenberg School of Management, $35,983
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute Foisie Business School, $75,168
- Auburn University Harbert College of Business, $35,100
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln, $30,240
- Rochester Institute of Technology Saunders College of Business, $78,000
For the second year in a row, 35 U.S.-based business schools were ranked. To be included, schools needed to complete an extensive school survey. Of the 35 schools, 34 also allowed us to survey their most recent graduating classes. The alumni survey made up two-thirds of the ranking methodology. Of the 34 schools to survey their alumni between June and September of this year, 32 met the minimum 10% response rate. Kennesaw State University did not allow us to survey their alums, and the University of South Florida and the University of Cincinnati failed to meet the minimum 10% response rate. In all, 8,381 alumni were surveyed and 1,583 responded for a total response rate of about 19%.
Like the previous two rankings, schools were ranked based on three equally weighted categories — admissions standards, the quality of the academic experience, and the career outcomes of graduates. Admissions standards included average undergraduate GPAs of the most recently enrolled classes, average work experience, acceptance rates, and GMAT or GRE scores. Schools that enrolled students with at least 10 years of work experience were given credit if they waived standardized test scores for those students. The programs with the best admissions scores were at Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts, Indiana, Lehigh, and Wisconsin.
The quality of the academic experience at a school was based on 11 questions on a one-to-ten scale that sought alumni satisfaction on numerous aspects of the program, including group work with classmates, the availability and knowledge of the faculty, and the flexibility of the program. At the top of the academic experience category were RIT Saunders, Carnegie Mellon, Indiana, North Carolina, and Ohio.
Lastly, we looked at career outcomes, which were also based solely on alumni surveys. We asked alumni if their primary and secondary career-related goals were met as a result of the program. We also asked graduates if they won pay raises or promotions as a direct consequence of the online MBA. Alumni opinions on the availability of career resources and career coaches or mentors by the school also were sought. Topping the career outcomes category were USC Marshall, RIT Saunders, Carnegie Mellon, North Carolina, and WPI.
SOME LARGE MOVEMENTS IN THIS YEAR’S ONLINE MBA RANKING
With a relatively new and developing ranking — especially one based heavily on alumni feedback — some big movements are inevitable. One of the largest positive jumps this year was RIT Saunders, which catapulted a dozen spots from 22nd last year to 10th this year. However, in the first edition of the ranking, Saunders was 13th, suggesting last year’s finish might have been more of the anomaly. Saunders moved up to 10th by finishing first in the academic experience category and second in career outcomes — both categories were based solely on alumni feedback.
Meanwhile, the University of North Dakota surged 13 spots from 27th to 14th, after finishing fifth in the first ranking. The University of Wisconsin’s Consortium program had the largest jump, going from 30th last year to 15th this year. The Consortium was launched in 2003 and includes faculty from three University of Wisconsin system universities — Eau Claire, La Cross, and Osh Kosh. “We’re pulling top faculty from three institutions,” says Robert Erffmeyer, director of the program and a professor of marketing at Eau Claire for three decades. Wisconsin’s program is fully asynchronous, meaning it has no live Internet nor in-person class sessions. Despite enrolling students from 36 states and four countries, the Wisconsin program is heavily populated with students from the Midwest coming out of the healthcare and engineering fields. To stay relative, Erffmeyer says, faculty meet annually to project what electives students might want in two years based on residential and online teaching. They then create those courses.
Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School had the largest drop this year, falling from 16th place last year to 34th this year. While Northeastern’s alumni ratings were relatively stable, D’Amore-McKim took a larger hit in the admissions category this year. Hofstra University’s Zarb School also had significant movement, tumbling from ninth last year to 24th. After finishing first in the academic experience category and second in career outcomes last year, Zarb’s most recent alumni placed them slightly lower in each category at 13th and 10th, respectively.
VALUABLE DATA COLLECTED FOR FUTURE MBA APPLICANTS
More important than the actual ranking is the trove of data collected to compile the ranking. Both school and alumni data are valuable to current and future applicants considering an online MBA degree. For instance, two-thirds of recent graduates at Louisiana State University say they received a promotion directly because of their online MBA — more than any other school. At Carnegie Mellon, nearly nine out of ten (88%) say they received a salary increase after completing the program, again, topping every other school in the ranking.
When alumni were asked to “appraise the overall quality of their professors,” no other school scored better than the Jack Welch Management Institute, which notched a score of 9.78 out of a possible 10 points. That outcome will come as a surprise to many academics but the former CEO of General Electric has made student evaluations of faculty a key driver of who gets to teach in the Institute’s program. Alumni from RIT Saunders scored their school best on the amount and quality of teamwork available in the program, with an average of 9.63. Asked about their satisfaction in immediately applying classroom learning to their jobs, both RIT Saunders and the Jack Welch Management Institute scored a highly impressive 9.75 on the ten-point scale. As for a program’s flexibility to allow students to manage their professional and personal lives while earning an MBA, alumni from the University of Cincinnati rated their school best with a score of 9.88.
When it came to admissions acceptance rates, the toughest school for the 2018-2019 academic year was RIT Saunders, which accepted just 30.77% of its applicants. Next was the Jack Welch Management Institute, which accepted 1,253 applicants from a pool of 3,103 for an acceptance rate of 40.38%. With an average of 700 students, professionals enrolling at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School reported the highest GMAT score, even though a mere 6% of UNC’s students submitted a GMAT, down from 11% a year earlier. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School had the next highest class GMAT average at 660, with more than 80% of the students submitting a test score.
Alumni from USC’s Marshall School were most satisfied with their school’s coaching and career support, averaging 9.53 points on the pair pf questions meant to assess the effectiveness of the career services office and career coaches or mentors provided by a school. Hofstra’s Zarb School followed with a 9.26 and the Jack Welch Management Institute rounded out the top three with a score of 9.25. Alumni networks are a large part of the MBA’s appeal, and alumni at Carnegie Mellon Tepper rated the value of their network highest at 9.44. Following Tepper were USC Marshall (9.26) and Hofstra Zarb (9.09).
DIVERSITY IN PROGRAM STRUCTURE — AND COST OF ONLINE MBAS
It doesn’t take looking past the top 10 schools on this year’s list to see the diversity in online MBA programs on the market. On one end you have Carnegie Mellon’s program, which is modeled off its residential program — cost and structure. At $137,200, it’s the most expensive program on this year’s ranking. The part-time online hybrid degree enrolls just about 50 students in each intake and takes about three years to complete. Over half of the program is delivered in a synchronous style, this year’s age-range in enrolled students was 22 to 53 and the average work experience was around six years, which hits the profile more akin to a full-time residential program than a typical online MBA program. The range in average years worked is zero to 17.5.
At the other end, you have a program lie the MBA@Nebraska offered by the University of Nebraska. The top-10 program also takes about three years to complete but costs more than $100,000 less than Carnegie Mellon’s program, enrolls about 150 students per intake, and is just 10% synchronous and is fully online. The average years of work experience are nine and the range is zero years of work experience up to 31.
No doubt, there is a program for pretty much any learning style and budget on this year’s list. But the three schools that have been jostling at the top the past three years — Carnegie Mellon, Indiana, and USC — all tilt towards be more expensive and require some in-person meeting time, though Indiana’s program is priced at just under $75,000, about $30K less than USC and $63K less than Carnegie Mellon. Tepper’s program combines two live classes a week, pre-recorded classes, as well as six “Access Weekends” a year in which students travel to Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. to connect with their fellow classmates, alumni, and faculty.
While USC Marshall accepts around 100 students into its program per year, students are broken up into smaller learning cohorts. At the beginning of the programs, students spend a week at the Marshall School of Business in Los Angeles where they meet their fellow classmates and faculty and begin working with their cohorts. USC’s program is one of the faster ones and students finish in less than two years. It also is about two-thirds asynchronous, meaning, the majority of the work is done at the students’ own pace and time.
Indiana Kelley’s Kelley Direct MBA program is one of the largest ones and accepts about 500 students per year. The program, which can take up to four years to complete, is fully online and 60% synchronous. While there is no required residential component, many students take advantage of a consulting project and global immersion that involve traveling and working in-person with classmates and faculty.
COMMUNITY BUILDING AN INCREASING COMPONENT OF THE ONLINE DEGREE
Set up on a “mini-semester” schedule, Tepper starts each “mini” with its Access Weekend. “Every online class starts with an in-person three sessions,” says Cindy McCauley, the executive director of Online Masters Programs at Tepper. McCauley says the Access Weekends are both what sets the Tepper program apart from other programs and has grown into a very popular aspect of the degree. Students spend Fridays in extra-curricular activities and Saturdays and Sundays are for classes. Attendance is not mandatory, but McCauley says virtually all students show up for all 16 Access Weekends during the 30 months it takes to complete the program. “They love them,” she says. “It’s almost like a mini-conference. And it’s with 50 of your closest friends.”
Another differentiator for the Tepper program is students can — and sometimes do — switch into the full-time residential program. “We are very committed to the fact this is the same program in the online space as it is on campus,” McCauley says, adding that the commitment is one reason the cost of the online degree is more akin to the cost of a full-time residential MBA. “And that’s not just lip-service,” McCauley continues. “If you want to transfer into the full-time program, you can. Because it’s the same program.” That’s not the case at all schools, McCauley points out. Curriculums and structures are often different when looking at the online degree compared to a traditional residential degree. “While we are the most expensive, it’s not something I hear from students,” McCauley says. “They don’t fuss about that.”
At Indiana Kelley, Ramesh Venkataraman, the chair of the Kelley Direct program, says they’ve recently launched a new curriculum. The two biggest changes to the program are more electives and the implementation of Kelley’s Integrated Core. Kelley dropped the number of required courses from 39 to 27 out of the 54 credits it takes to earn the degree. “Essentially, we opened up 12 more credit hours of electives,” Venkataraman says. Now students can home in on an area or pick from the seven different majors the program offers. “Compared to other programs that I’m aware of, we have more electives than anyone,” Venkataraman boasts, adding the decision to create specific study areas is in response to industry feedback that companies are increasingly looking for specialists more so than generalists.
Another differentiator for Kelley Direct is the global immersion students can take. Venkataraman explains how online MBA students can travel together with faculty to various spots around the globe for consulting projects while he is on a global immersion trip to South Africa.
THE BOOM OF THE ONLINE MBA DEGREE
Many players keep flooding into the online learning space, leaving a wake of disruption and innovation in their wake. In less than four years, the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois Gies School of Business has exploded from 114 students to more than 2,500. With a price tag of $22,000 and just 18 courses with no required standardized test score, officials at the school believe they have the capacity to take it up to 5,000 students. The innovative “stackable” MBA allows students to enter the program at any time and build towards an MBA. “We’re selling a Tesla for the price of a Hyundai,” Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business told Poets&Quants last month.
Boston University’s Questrom School of Business is one of the newest entrants into the market and will offer an online MBA for just $24,000. “The time has come again to expand our portfolio, using new technologies to reach the global online segment,” Questrom Dean Susan Fournier said this past summer. “We are excited to deliver on our social mission by making our high-quality online MBA accessible at a disruptive price point.”
At the other end of the spectrum, schools like the University of California-Davis and Rice University are coming into the market with six-figure degree costs. At UC-Davis, the price tag is $104,400 and the cost is $107,730 at Rice Jones. The other massive move in the online space happened this fall when the University of Michigan Ross School of Business enrolled its first online MBA class with 72 students.
CONTINUED GROWTH AND INTEREST IN THE SPACE
Of course, with the additional schools, established players like Indiana Kelley and Carnegie Mellon Tepper could see their applicant pools dwindle. “How big is the market and does a school entering the market create more demand,” McCauley wonders, noting Michigan Ross’s entry into the market had a particularly large “ripple.” Venkataraman calls it a “double-edged sword.”
“For a long time, we were the only top-20 player in this space,” Venkataraman says of the Kelley program, which was first launched in the ’90s. “Having more enter only adds legitimacy to the online MBA degree.”
But on the other hand, it pushes established schools to continually look for ways in which it can differentiate itself. In the short-term, however, both Venkataraman and McCauley believe the popularity of the degree will create a large enough market to sustain the new entrants into the market. Indiana Kelley has seen its program grow from about 300 students in 2016 to more than 450 last academic year. “We’ve had to add more resources to meet the interest,” Venkataraman says, adding inquiries into the program from potential applicants have also increased.
Access and the continual increase in the legitimacy of the degree are factors in the increased popularity. “The online MBA is about access,” McCauley says. “I have students that live in Washington or California that can suddenly get a Carnegie Mellon degree without leaving their jobs. And I think we’re going to see more of that.”
The online degree could also be dipping into the full-time MBA applicant pool. “We find a lot of our competition is with full-time residential programs,” McCauley says, adding the profile of the online MBA student is very similar to the profile of the full-time MBA student. Venkataraman also says he’s seen the demographics of the online MBA student shift from professionals with eight to 12 years of experience to those with five to eight years of experience.
Either way, continued tough admissions standards is something McCauley says will help create a valuable classroom and potential network experience.
“We attract people that are looking for rigor and looking for something meaningful and deep,” McCauley says. “It creates a class that has a lot of the same values and drive. Our admissions standards make a difference with who’s in the room.”
(See the next two pages for the full rankings, total costs, and admissions standards at all programs.)