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What is an Online MBA Program Like?

An online MBA program allows you to complete your degree by taking courses from the comfort of your own home. It's a good option for people who want to earn an MBA while still working full-time.

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Universities differ on how their online programs are conducted and how long it takes to finish them. In some fully online programs, you can finish your program in 12 to 18 months. Other schools that use a hybrid method (combination of online and on-campus courses) or have residency requirements may take two years or longer.

In the past, an online MBA was not as well respected as the traditional on-campus program, but as the number of universities offering online programs continues to expand, those attitudes are changing.

Types of MBA Programs

Online MBA programs are offered in several formats and focuses. Like the traditional in-classroom MBA program, there are several variations of the online method. Here are some common types.

  • Fully Online MBA: These programs are held 100% online with no on-campus requirements. The courses are generally taught in asynchronous format and lessons are accessible at any time.
  • Hybrid/Low Residency MBA: Like the fully online programs, the hybrid or low residency MBA is designed to accommodate the schedules of working adults. They are held mostly online but also combine on-campus experiences such as Saturday classes every other week or a certain number of scheduled weekend seminars or residency weeks.
  • Executive MBA Online: Executive MBA programs usually require at least five years of work experience for admissions. These programs may be held in fully online or hybrid formats.
  • Accelerated MBA Online: Many accelerated MBA programs can be completed within 10 to 12 months. You may also be able to receive credit for other college courses or work experience. Most programs have flexible start dates, which means you can begin the program at one of several designated times during the year.

Prerequisites

For admission to an MBA program, you will need a bachelor's degree. Your undergraduate studies can be in any field, but a degree in a business-related field is helpful.

Most online MBA programs require almost the same application process as on-campus programs. These requirements can include:

  • An application form
  • Official transcripts of prior college work
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Resume
  • Application fee

Some universities also require proof of work experience and a video interview.

Traditionally, business schools have required students to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) and submit their scores as part of the admissions process. The GMAT is a standardized test that measures such skills as analytical thinking/writing and verbal/quantitative reasoning.

"The GMAT is a measure of your readiness for a business program," says Marco De Novellis, senior editor for BusinessBecause and GMAC Media.

GMAC (Graduate Management Admissions Council) administers the GMAT test. After completing it, you will earn a score from 200–800. Top business schools may require a high score for admissions, such as 750 or greater, but each school has a range of what scores are acceptable, De Novellis says. He added that the GMAT scores are only one part of the larger picture.

Most online programs either don't require the GMAT or will allow a waiver based on work experience. This is a growing trend that is catching on with on-campus MBA programs as well. 

Coursework

An online MBA program offers the same courses as a traditional on-campus program, though you may have fewer choices of electives or areas of concentration.

Usually, an MBA student will complete the core classes in business and management first. They have varying course titles, but most are centered on key concepts such as:

Once you've finished the core classes, you will choose an area of concentration and take elective courses.

One major difference between the coursework in online and on-campus MBA programs is the internship. The majority of full-time, on-campus MBA programs will require or recommend an internship, usually during the summer between the first and second years. Most online MBA programs don't have internships but may require a capstone project.

Most online MBA programs don't have internships but may require a capstone project.

How is Instruction Delivered?

An online MBA program will use a learning platform (or learning management system). Most universities will use a popular third-party platform such as Blackboard, Canvas, Docebo, Moodle, or Brightspace.

You will be given a username and password so that you can log into the platform. Some learning platforms will work on your phone or a tablet, but for full functionality, using a desktop or laptop computer is the best choice.

Courses are usually organized by week. Each week may then be subdivided into modules of readings and videos, assignments, discussion forums, quizzes, tests, and other features. Some courses will use a print textbook while others may use an e-book.

To submit your assignments, you will either type directly on the learning platform or complete them on documents and then upload them. The instructor will post your grades online and give you feedback on your assignments.

Classes may be conducted asynchronously, which means you can log in any time of day. You will have weekly deadlines to meet.

Some online courses will also use synchronous features, such a video conferencing. These may be built into the learning platform, or you may use another app such a Zoom or Microsoft Teams. You may also be asked to use video conferencing with your peers for group projects or presentations.

More and more online programs are adding live sessions, De Novellis says. In some cases, your online class will be integrated with an on-campus class and you will be linked by live video stream to each class session.

More and more online programs are adding live sessions in addition to or in place of prerecorded videos and lessons.

"You will see the professor in the room lecturing," De Novellis says, adding that the online students can participate in the class discussion along with the on-campus students. "This provides for a seamless way of interacting with the students."

Online vs On Campus: Key Differences

The main difference between online and on-campus programs lies in the course schedules and delivery methods. Each online MBA program is unique, so you should shop around to select the program that suits your needs the best.

If you're considering enrolling in an online MBA program, you'll want to be aware of how online learning compares to the on-campus experience. Here are some key differences. 

Year-round schedule: Full-time, on-campus MBA programs typically operate only during the traditional school year, from August until May. Students have a summer break in which they may serve an internship or work to gain real-world experience.

In contrast, courses at online universities run year-round. Some school may have a one- or two-week summer or holiday break.

Online learning platform: These days, online learning platforms such as Blackboard and Canvas are routinely used as supplements for in-person courses. A professor may use it to share assigned readings or keep students informed about their grades.

In an online class, the learning platform is your only classroom and will likely be the primary way you communicate with your professor and peers. You will "attend" class virtually and use the multimedia, interactive platforms for your class discussions and coursework.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous: The terms "synchronous" and "asynchronous" refer to the way classes are experienced. Many online classes use only an asynchronous format; that is, students can log in the course at any time, day or night, to post discussion comments, watch videos, read articles, or submit assignments. These schedules allow students to work on their coursework after work, during their lunch breaks, or on weekends.

Increasingly, professors are opting to integrate synchronous sessions into the courses by using video conferencing. Synchronous sessions allow the entire class to meet together in real time. This idea is to simulate the experience of the in-person classroom by providing personal connections among the students and the professor. The drawback is trying to schedule a time when all students can be present.

Accelerated course lengths: Most online MBA programs, especially those that advertise that you can finish your degree in 12 months, have courses that last only eight weeks. This accelerated schedule can be intense: you will cover the same amount of material taught in a traditional 16-week class but in only half the time.

Regardless of whether the MBA program is conducted online or on campus, you will learn the same basics of business management, such as analytical thinking, leadership skills, operations management, finance, accounting, and marketing. While the accelerated course length takes you to the finish line faster, it also requires you to manage your time well, especially if you intend to keep working full time.  

How Do Employers Feel about an Online MBA?

Once seen as inferior or secondary, the online MBA has become increasingly accepted as a viable way of earning your degree.

"Employers don't notice or care how you pursued the degree," De Novellis says. As long as they see the MBA on your resume, that's all that counts. In fact, employers might even be impressed to learn you were able to keep working while also attending school, he says.

Earning an MBA online will give you the same degree as the traditional, on-campus option. In fact, more and more brick-and-mortar business schools are adding online and hybrid options. Your diploma will not list whether you took the online or traditional route to your degree.

In terms of value, an online MBA can open up the same possibilities to advance your career as a traditional MBA. An online degree also offers the same earning potential.

In terms of value, an online MBA can open up the same possibilities to advance your career as a traditional MBA.

The reputation of the university may have some influence. Some employers may be more impressed by a school with a familiar and respected name. While the very top-rated traditional business schools have not yet embraced online learning, there are many well-respected universities that have added the online option, De Novellis says.

One important factor is accreditation, which is a process that evaluates the quality of educational programs. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) provides accreditation for business schools, including MBA programs. AACSB accreditation is considered a mark of high quality.

An online MBA program with AACSB accreditation will advertise that fact. If you don't see any mention of accreditation on the school's website or literature, you should ask.

What Does an Online MBA Cost?

The total cost of an online MBA can be less than the cost of a traditional on-campus MBA program. The tuition tends to be somewhat lower, and you will save the costs of commuting or living on campus.

Universities charge tuition by the credit hour. To calculate the total cost of tuition, multiply the number of hours required for graduation by the cost per credit hour.

It's important to consider the cost of the MBA compared to the salary increase you may receive if the MBA leads to a promotion or new job, De Novellis says. This is often referred to as "return on investment," or ROI.

It's important to consider the cost of the MBA compared to the salary increase you may receive if the MBA leads to a promotion or new job.

In evaluating ROI, also consider the intangibles. For instance, an online school with an AACSB-accredited MBA program may charge a slightly higher tuition, but it will have higher quality program.

Financial aid in the form of grants and loans may be available to those who qualify. Scholarships may also be available from the university or from professional organizations. Also check with your employer to see if your company offers tuition reimbursement.

Is an Online MBA Program for Me?

An online program can be a great choice, but it's not for everyone.

For young students with ambitions to hold leadership roles at leading corporations, a traditional full-time MBA is still the preferred choice, De Novellis says. These students will need the advantages of the on-campus experience, such as access to the career center and networking with recruiters.

Most online MBA students are seeking to advance in their careers with the same company or same industry in which they are already employed. In these cases, an online MBA may be an excellent choice.

Most online MBA students are seeking to advance in their careers with the same company or same industry in which they are already employed.

Contrary to myth, online courses are not easier than traditional courses. In fact, they may be more demanding because you have to actively participate. Just sitting in the back of the class taking notes is not an option.

Important Skills and Traits

A successful online student may have the following traits:

  • Excellent time management skills. You must make time from the obligations of work and family to devote at least six to seven hours per week to each course you take.
  • Independent, self-directed work habits. Although your classes will include group work, you will be working on your own most of the time.
  • Good communication skills. You must be willing to ask questions, reach out to your professor, and make connections with your classmates.
  • Focused on the end result. When things get rough, you need to be able to "keep your eyes on the prize" and persist.

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen Hanson

Contributing Writer

marco denovellis

With professional insight from:

Marco De Novellis

Senior Editor, BusinessBecause and GMAC Media