Online MBAs can be worth it if you're prioritizing cost and flexibility, and are ready to embrace online interaction with your peers and professors.
Getting your Master of Business Administration (MBA) can build on your business acumen, enhance your ability to lead, and connect you to a broad network of like-minded people. But will the benefits carry if your MBA is entirely online? It depends on your personal and professional goals, financial outcome, costs and other factors.
The benefits of an online MBA are myriad. Graduates can see expanded responsibilities and promotions at work, a boost in confidence, and access to an alumni network that can span the globe.
Then there’s the financial boost. According to a survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the median base starting salary US companies were expecting to offer new MBA hires in 2019 was a historically high $115,000 . The median base salary for new MBA hires dipped to $105,000 in 2020, after the start of pandemic, reflecting a widespread dip in pay across many industries .
The financial benefits seem to translate to online MBA programs too. According to a 2017 US News survey, the average salary for students three months after graduating from an online MBA program was $96,974 . This was a 22 percent increase from the average entering salary for online MBA students, which was $79,352. Poets&Quants reports that the highest average salary increases for online programs hover around 60 percent .
A survey of 2019 graduates from the iMBA program at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business found similar positive outcomes . Over half reported having received a promotion, job offer, or accepted a new position while they were in the program; graduates saw their pay increase by 20 percent on average.
The high expected incomes post-graduation are likely what allows students to borrow large sums of money for their MBAs. A 2019 Bloomberg Businessweek survey found that over half of MBA graduates from highly ranked business schools had borrowed at least $100,000 to pay for their education . Still, it’s a good idea to minimize costs where you can and to consider borrowing money for education carefully. Apply for scholarships, and if you’re borrowing money, take out federal loans before opting for private ones.
The price of an online MBA can vary widely depending on whether the school is public or private, in-state or out-of-state, and how much financial aid you receive. According to a ranking by Poets&Quants, a business school publication, the top ten online business school programs of 2021 in the US cost anywhere from $35,375 to $141,320 for the entirety of the program . The University of Illinois’ online MBA program costs $21,744 total, and Macquarie University’s Global MBA costs a total of AUD $33,000 (both on Coursera).
In-person programs can have higher price tags. Several creep over the $200,000 threshold; one year of tuition and living expenses can top $100,000 for some schools.
Consider the basic differences between an online and in-person MBA program.
Flexibility: A large part of the draw of an online MBA is its flexibility. The ability to attend lectures and complete group assignments from behind a computer screen means students don’t have to relocate, or even quit their day jobs. This has made online MBAs a strong draw for those who might have families to take care of, or established careers they’re hesitant to pause. An article published by the US News in 2017 stated that the average online MBA student was 33 years old, compared to the average of 27 who attended on-campus MBA programs . An average of 91 percent of online MBA students also worked full time when they enrolled.
There may be on-campus part-time MBAs in your area that hold classes on evenings and weekends. If you’re hoping to continue working while you earn your degree in person, this can be an option worth considering.
Cost: Online MBA programs are often cheaper than in-person programs. Keep in mind that factors like financial aid availability and being in-state or out-of-state can influence the price tags of both online and on-campus programs.
Face-to-face interactions: In an online MBA, interactions with your instructors or peers will—unless you enroll in a blended program—generally take place entirely virtually. If the social aspect of business school is something you prioritize, an on-campus program might make more sense.
That said, online programs have been adapting to encourage interactions in their online communities. Students can often participate in group projects, attend online networking sessions, or have access to office hours. Online networking opportunities might also mean that you’ll be able to meet employers or alumni that wouldn’t come to campus otherwise.
Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta, a professor at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, says online programs can even be more conducive to meeting people if the student is prepared to do so.
“If a student is comfortable in joining and being fully engaged in an online setting, then an online degree will provide them with more opportunities to establish connection,” she says. “I say more, because, in terms of time needed to ‘speak’ or ‘meet’ others in an online environment is less taxing than doing the same for in-person settings.”
Blended, or hybrid, learning programs combine both online and in-person instruction. This might mean assignments are completed online, but discussions, lectures, or social events are held on campus.
Like any MBA program, reputation, cost, quality of education, and access to an alumni network can all be factors in determining which online program to apply to. Beyond that, online programs should be accredited, and fit what you want out of an online education.
In the US, online MBA programs should be accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) or other accreditation bodies like the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP).
Here are some questions to consider to determine if a school meets what you’re looking for:
What opportunities are there to network with peers or alumni?
Are classes taught by professors that also teach on campus, or by online-specific faculty?
Do you have access to student support services like the financial aid office or career center?
Are lessons pre-recorded, or taught live?
What do the school’s graduation rates and employment rates look like?
Who grades the assignments?
Getting an MBA online can open doors, help you grow professionally, as an individual, and yes—financially as well. Online MBAs can accommodate the obligations of your life while you learn the tools to build and support businesses.
“The training you receive in an MBA Program prepares you to deal with ambiguity and provides a buffer against uncertainty,” says Hayden Noel, professor at the Gies College of Business. “You would be better equipped to take advantage of changing opportunities post-COVID. You will also become more effective as a leader and better understand the different functions of your organization.”
Ready to get started? Browse online business degrees on Coursera.
1. Graduate Management Admission Council. "Business School Hiring Report: Corporate Recruiters Survey 2019, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/business-school-hiring-report_corporate-recruiters-survey-2019_may-2019.pdf." Accessed March 29, 2021.
2. Graduate Management Admission Council. "The Impact of COVID-19 on the Hiring of Business School Graduates: Corporate Recruiters Survey 2020, https://www.gmac.com/-/media/files/gmac/research/employment-outlook/gmac_corporate_recruiters_survey_sept_2020.pdf." Accessed March 29, 2021.
3. U.S. News. "U.S. News Data: The Average Online MBA Student, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-05-23/us-news-data-the-average-online-mba-student." Accessed March 29, 2021.
4. Poets&Quants. "Online MBA Programs With The Best Salary Outcomes, https://poetsandquants.com/2020/11/15/online-mba-programs-with-the-best-salary-outcomes/." Accessed March 29, 2021.
5. Crain's Chicago Business. "Online-by-design iMBA from Gies Business offers real-time ROI, https://www.chicagobusiness.com/crains-content-studio/online-design-imba-gies-business-offers-real-time-roi." Accessed March 29, 2021.
6. Bloomberg Businessweek. "Top U.S. B-School Students Pile on Debt to Earn MBAs, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-17/top-u-s-b-school-students-pile-on-debt-to-earn-mbas." Accessed March 29, 2021.
7. Poets&Quants. "The Best Online MBA Programs of 2021, https://poetsandquants.com/2020/11/09/the-best-online-mba-programs-of-2021/?pq-category=online-mba-news&pq-category-2=online-mba-rankings." Accessed March 29, 2021.
8. U.S. News. "U.S. News Data: The Average Online MBA Student, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-05-23/us-news-data-the-average-online-mba-student." Accessed March 29, 2021.