Is an Online MBA Worth It?
Updated August 31, 2022
Online MBAs were once seen as second-rate. But in this increasingly skill-based economy, it's become more about what you can do than where you learned it.
Still, students and graduates wonder: Will employers take an online MBA seriously?
Many online MBA programs are cheaper and more flexible than a traditional, on-campus degree. Prices for online MBAs vary, but students typically only pay a few hundred dollars per credit and don't have to leave their jobs and lose income while studying.
Meanwhile, students attending top-tier programs often pile on debt to earn their MBAs. A Bloomberg Businessweek survey of more than 10,000 graduates from the class of 2018 found that nearly half borrowed at least $100,000 to pay off their education.
But many of those students will also get something that most online MBA students won't: prestige.
Alexander Lowry, executive director of Gordon College's master of science in financial analysis (the equivalent of an MBA program), said there's some truth in the perception that online MBAs don't measure up to traditional ones.
"There's no question that the top 10 MBA programs have a prestige that online programs cannot match," he said. "The most important part of the program is the brand name you're buying; a close second is the network you build from the face-to-face interactions. A typical online MBA cannot duplicate either of those."
But just how wide is the gap between online MBAs and traditional MBAs? That depends on the validity of your degree, your school's reputation, and your career goals.
Is Your School Accredited?
The first thing most employers check is a school's accreditation. If your online MBA is from a school that isn't accredited, you likely won't be taken seriously for a job.
Accreditation means a school meets a quality standard. There are two types of accreditation: regional and national.
Your school must be regionally or nationally accredited. Otherwise, employers won't know if your online degree is legit.
Something to keep in mind: Regionally accredited schools are better for MBAs than nationally accredited schools because they tend to have higher academic standards. You can find more advice about online accreditation and red flags about online programs here.
Regional Accrediting Agencies
Your best chance at being taken seriously by employers is to enroll in a school approved by one of the following regional accrediting agencies:
Higher Learning Commission
New England Commission of Higher Education
Middle States Commission on Higher Education
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
WASC Senior College and University Commission
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
How Well-Known Is Your School?
Your school's reputation may be a deciding factor when employers look at your resume.
Before running Gordon College's MBA program, Lowry used to do a lot of hiring for one of JP Morgan's firms. His assessments of candidates with online degrees usually centered around two important questions:
- Does this candidate's school have a strong reputation, especially for producing candidates in this sector?
- Has this firm hired anyone from this school before, and if so, how have they performed?
Things got trickier when candidates had online MBA degrees from schools off their radar.
"If it's a school that's brand new to us, it's an unknown," Lowry said. "That's not necessarily a mark in [the candidate's] favor. We cannot know their quality until we've hired them."
Many companies only target graduates from the top business schools in the country. Lowry said that's because those schools have built reputations by consistently producing graduates who make a significant difference for the organizations they join.
It's tough for newer or less well-known online-only programs to compete at the highest levels. But Lowry said people shouldn't be discouraged from getting an online MBA, since it still meets the demand in other top-tier positions for candidates with advanced degrees.
"An online MBA checks that box the same way that a traditional on-campus program does," he said. "Obtaining an MBA in whatever form — whether on-campus or online, whether full- or part-time, whether traditional or executive MBA — is a door-opening credential."
Is Your Degree Full-Time or Part-Time?
Most online MBA students enroll in part-time programs so that they can pay for school and continue working. Many employers even sponsor employees when they go back to school, since that training is a benefit to the company, too.
But here's the rub: Full-time grads may have the edge over part-time grads in the job market because they tend to have more flexibility after graduation.
"Major employers searching specifically for MBAs (rather than experienced professionals who happen to have an MBA) tend to focus their efforts on the full-time students," said Scott Singer, president of Insider Career Strategies, in an email. "It's easier to just invest recruitment dollars toward the full-timers who have fewer obstacles."
But does that mean employment outcomes for part-time students are bad in comparison? No.
One report found the median salary for part-time business master's graduates was $69,795 in 2020, though it could reach as high as $161,124. Meanwhile, the median salary for full-time graduate students was $81,924.
Do You Have Big Career Goals After Graduation?
An online MBA helps students build on existing skills, gain critical business knowledge, and increase self-confidence on the job. But the degree doesn't guarantee that you'll get the same high-level jobs as someone with a traditional MBA.
Lowry believes online MBA students should keep their expectations in check. Expecting to land on Wall Street right after graduation may be too ambitious.
"Unless their school is well-known in the region or sector...it's not a foregone conclusion they'll land the job they desire," Lowry said. "The MBA is a door-opening credential. People need to network like a pro to land successfully."
Lowry said it's more common for online MBA grads to take a stepping-stone job before moving up. For example, a grad could begin at a top-tier regional investment firm and then transition to a top-tier Wall Street firm after building a network in the industry.
"That's a fine career path," Lowry said. "There are many ways to do it."
Header Image Credit: 10'000 Hours, alexsl | Getty Images
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