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  • Writer's pictureValentin Vassilev

Differentiate Your Online MBA in a Crowded Market

Demand for Online MBA programmes is growing.

Interest in Online MBA programmes has been intensifying in recent years, and there are strong indications that the coronavirus outbreak is further strengthening this trend.

While applications for traditional MBA programmes have fallen over the past two years, demand is up for most online MBAs. According to the GMAC Application Trends Survey Report 2019, Online MBA programmes either grew (50%) or maintained (10%) their application volume compared with last year.

As a result, business schools are offering more online MBA programmes. In 2015, only 20% of MBA providers accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) offered an online MBA programme. By 2019, this percentage had risen to 35%.

This overview of the current Online MBA market is designed to help institutions make their offering stand out in an increasingly competitive market. Let’s consider some of the major features that guide MBA prospects in shortlisting their options.


Accreditation is an appropriate way for schools to show that their programmes adhere to a certain high standard. All three major accrediting agencies – AACSB, the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) – accredit online courses.

Accreditations are not obligatory, but they are valuable. In addition to signalling quality, accreditation ensures that a programme is not ignored by rankings.


Many MBA seekers consider rankings at some point of their school selection, although their final decision is grounded on many other factors. There are several key Online MBA rankings. They differ in scope and geographical reach.

· The Online MBA Ranking by the Financial Times is released every year. It is international and lists only 10 programmes.

· The US-centric annual Online MBA ranking by U.S. News lists 321 programmes.

· The Top 25 Online MBA ranking by the Princeton Review is global, but rarely lists non-US programmes.

· Poets&Quants’ Best Online MBA ranking lists 35 programmes. The ranking is released every year and includes only US-based courses.

When it comes to methodology, there are requirements regarding what percentage of the programme is conducted online. The Financial Times states that at least 70% of the content must be delivered online. In addition, there are requirements about how long the programme has existed as well as the presence of selection and examination processes. Data is typically collected from both alumni and business schools.

General Management vs Specialisation

The traditional MBA trains professionals to be able to manage the general operations of any company. Often, it prepares managers who specialise in one area to move to a broader business leadership role. Yet, to better distinguish their online MBAs, many schools offer concentrations, enabling students to focus on a single area key to their career development.

A survey by Wiley Education Services has found that the number of US programmes offering concentrations in healthcare, marketing and finance grew in 2019 compared with 2018 by 23%, 15.4% and 18%, respectively.

The survey also showed that other top concentrations are Accounting, Human Resources/HR management, Management, and Business Analytics.

In terms of careers pursued by online MBA graduates, data collected by the Financial Times indicates that careers in finance are still the most popular (nearly 15%), followed by healthcare (more than 12%) and industrial (12%). Other popular career choices are IT/telecoms, consultancy, public sector/nonprofit, and consumer products.

Tuition fees

On-campus programmes are usually more expensive. The tuition fees for Online MBA programmes offered by established schools in the US and Europe vary between USD 30,000 and USD 40,000. The cost of attendance of many traditional MBA programmes exceeds USD 100,000, which makes online MBAs an attractive choice in terms of price.

However, online courses are not always more affordable. Some institutions deliberately charge Online MBA participants the same as those enrolled in on-campus MBA programmes. For instance, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (US) has set a tuition fee of USD 74,520 for its online course. At Kenan-Flagler Business School (US), the tuition is nearly USD 126,000.


The majority of institutions offering Online MBA programmes also include options for some form of financial assistance covering a percentage of the total fee. In many cases, scholarships are merit-based and awarded without regard to financial need. They are based on factors such as academic performance, GMAT scores, professional experience, and the overall strength of the application.

Some institutions take a more holistic approach, including criteria such as evidence of individual impact and even willingness to cooperate with the marketing and recruitment teams in order to attract participants onto the programme.

Networking and student engagement


For professionals considering on-campus programmes, the face-to-face networking opportunities are of huge importance. Prospective students look forward to expanding their networks through classroom sessions, group work, socialising, etc. When it comes to the Online MBA option, aspirants are concerned that the networking experience will not be of the same quality.

However, there are some quite compelling arguments in favour of Online MBA networking:

- The current generation of students are increasingly comfortable with digital interaction.

- Online MBA participants, often balancing study with work and family life, are more open to helping each other out, according to Martin Boehm, dean of IE Business School (Spain).

- Many online providers still include face-to-face components requiring the students’ physical presence.

- Online learning can actually be more personal because participants basically let their professors and peers into their homes.

- In virtual classrooms, introverted, shy students feel more comfortable about contributing and building relationships.

- Team projects are common.

Student engagement

Schools are improving at fostering online interaction among students and faculty, according to data collected by the Financial Times in connection with the 2020 Online MBA ranking. The fact that students are increasingly comfortable with digital interaction and technological advancement could also be among the reasons for the increasing engagement. According to the data, nearly 55% of graduates gave a score of 10/10 for the effectiveness of online interaction, compared with less than 30% in 2014.

Career services and alumni success

Online MBA participants are able to take advantage of career services when they attend residential modules and online via webinars, resources, career development courses, job boards, etc. Students also may have access to career consultations, coaching, and mentoring programmes.

Concerns about the credibility of online degrees among employers still exist, but there are indications that the perception of such courses from traditional institutions has changed. Companies like Fiat Chrysler say they treat graduates of online and full-time MBA programmes the same.

So, what can schools do to lessen such worries among both students and employers?

Boost brand and degree recognition

Institutions should not underestimate brand recognition. For many students, the brand of the school and the quality associated with it are more important than the mode of delivery. Besides, most employers don't even ask about the format of the programme completed by the candidate.

Highlight the profile of online MBA participants

Data shows that Online MBA participants are older and more experienced, which typically means that they can learn more from each other. Online MBA participants manage multiple priorities and navigate well in a virtual and tech environment and with remote communication. In addition, Online MBA providers are finding ways to improve students’ communication skills, knowing that employers value them.

With the expected rise in the number of Online MBA programmes, it’s highly important for schools to pinpoint the distinctive features of their offering and then integrate them accordingly. As competition grows more severe, finding ways to place their online programmes in the foreground will be vital.

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