Online MBA Programs May Offer Easier Admissions Path

US News

Mark Green was anxious about getting into the online MBA program at Marylhurst University.

The 47-year-old Louisiana resident had GMAT scores that were solid, but not excellent, and an undergraduate degree that had nothing to do with business.

But as stressed as he was, he says he would have been far more worried had he tried to apply to an in-person, full-time MBA program.

"The perception is full-time programs are a bit more stringent," says Green, who graduated from Marylhurst in 2012. "I think it's easier to get into an online program. I think they are targeting themselves more to an adult learner."

[Learn more about applying to business school.]

Online programs have a variety of benefits for students like Green. They provide the flexibility to work and maintain family commitments during school and give students access to a network of professionally established classmates.

And there's another, rarely mentioned benefit: They may be easier for adult learners to get into.

At the top 10 full-time face-to-face MBA programs ranked by U.S. News, the average acceptance rate for the fall entering class of 2012 was 19 percent. At the 10 highest ranked business schools with online MBA programs, the average acceptance rate for 2012 was 64 percent.

The trend seems to extend beyond the top programs, according to a September 2012 report by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the nonprofit organization of management schools behind the GMAT.

The 29 online MBA programs that participated in the survey were expected to have a median acceptance rate of 82 percent in 2012, compared with a median 45 percent acceptance rate at the 145 participating full-time, two-year MBA programs in the same year, the report found.

"Typically the full-time programs are a little more selective," says Larry Chasteen, assistant dean and director of the online MBA program at the University of Texas--Dallas, one of the top 10 programs of its kind. "They require a higher GMAT because they are only selecting a limited number of students."

[Explore how to boost your GMAT score.]

While a full-time, in-person program may only accept 50 or 60 students, online programs can often enroll hundreds of students at a time, Chasteen says. In some cases, schools enroll as many students as they'd like.

"Full-time, on-site MBA programs often have limited space capacity and designated faculty," Susan C. Aldridge, senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said via email. "In an online environment, additional sections can be easily added, faculty can be recruited globally, and it's easier to scale the volume increase than in a traditional classroom-based environment."

Although admissions officials often say their online MBA programs have the same standards as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they are quick to point out that the programs attract different kinds of candidates with unique strengths.

In a traditional full-time program, applicants tend to be younger and recently out of college, says Philip T. Powell, faculty chair of the online MBA program at Indiana University--Bloomington's Kelley School of Business. With those students, factors such as undergraduate grade point average and GMAT score tend to be given more weight, particularly since there is little else to go by, he says.

Applicants to online MBA programs tend to be older - the average age of new students applying to online business programs ranked by U.S. News is 33. For those candidates, impressive professional accomplishments can sometimes make up for average or lackluster academic credentials, admissions officials say. In fact, of the 191 online business schools ranked by U.S. News, 42 percent of the programs don't require any standardized test scores.

[Discover which top MBA programs are embracing online learning.]

"People will score better while they are in school and after up to five years," says Cheryl Oliver, assistant dean for graduate and online programs at the Washington State University College of Business, which has the top-rated online MBA program in the country. "In online learning, when we are looking at people who have been out seven or eight or nine years, we know that might not be the best measurement for that learner."

Although in general it may be easier for older, nontraditional students to get into online MBA programs than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, admission into the top online programs is still quite competitive, school officials say.

Take the case of Indiana University. The school's full-time MBA program, ranked No. 22 in the country, has an acceptance rate of 39 percent, according to data provided to U.S. News. Its online counterpart, ranked third, has an acceptance rate of 76 percent.

Powell says those numbers are misleading, since the full-time program attracts more international students, whose academic credentials are extraordinary.

When you compare domestic online MBA students and domestic face-to-face MBA students, the candidate profile is very similar, he says. Taking international students out of the equation, he says, the online program has an acceptance rate that is only five to 10 percentage points higher than its on-campus counterpart.

Powell has participated in the admissions process for both online and in-person MBA students and says he approaches each slightly differently.

"When I'm interviewing an applicant for a full-time program, I'm asking myself, 'Is this person going to get a job in two years?'" he says. "When I'm talking to an online MBA student, I'm asking myself, 'Is this person going to be motivated to perform in a way that will accelerate his or her ability to move up in his company?'"

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