Deciding Between an Online or On-Campus MBA Program

·5 min read

Prospective MBA students need to decide whether it makes more sense to earn their degree on campus or online.

Pros and Cons of an Online MBA vs. In-Person or On-Ground Business School

An online education provides the flexibility to study where you want, when you want, yet students have fewer opportunities for in-person networking -- something many aspiring MBAs value. An on-campus program allows for more face-to-face interaction with classmates and instructors, though students generally attend class in person at a set time, which isn't ideal for someone who's also working.

Whether to earn a degree in the online or traditional format may also depend on a prospective student's career goals, says Ash Soni, executive associate dean of academic programs at the Indiana University--Bloomington Kelley School of Business, which offers both an on-ground and online MBA.

"The students who are interested in our in-residence programs generally tend to be career switchers," says Soni. "They've been doing other things or they may be working in business, but are looking to do something different. For example, they may be in operations but are looking to go into brand management or banking."

By contrast, experts say, many online students want to advance within their industry -- perhaps into management roles at their current company, for instance. They often juggle their job with their online education, therefore taking fewer classes at once compared with on-ground students. For them, earning a degree may take longer.

"They may eventually be seeking a career change, but most of them aren't looking at it in that immediate way," says Stacey Lynn Dorang Peeler, managing director of the Pennsylvania State University's online MBA, which is led by the Smeal College of Business in partnership with the Penn State World Campus.

Online students are typically a few years older than those studying on campus, experts say, and have more years of work experience. While the types of students differ, don't expect the quality of an online program to be lower than the one on campus at reputable schools. Typically, the curriculum and types of assignments, including group projects, are the same -- just delivered in a different way.

And while online students at reputable schools have access to many student services virtually, they should determine beforehand whether they feel that is ideal for them personally to satisfy their professional goals.

Differences Between Online MBAs and On-Campus, Traditional MBAs

Compare and contrast on-campus and online MBA programs:

While online classes may have what's referred to as a synchronous component, where students attend class virtually each week at a designated time, students mostly complete coursework at their own pace -- though they must meet specific deadlines. An online MBA may also still include in-person residencies; students travel to campus for activities and class sessions for a few days to a week.

Often, the admissions requirements for on-campus and online MBAs are similar, if not the same. But Dorang Peeler says one difference is that online MBA applicants are much more likely to waive the GMAT or GRE score requirement given that they have several years of work experience under their belts.

"We found that in many cases, waiving the exam can help attract students with more robust work experience, in some cases decades' worth, that can then translate to a higher-quality, more engaged classroom experience for all the students," says Dorang Peeler. "For those with less experience, the standardized test is still a valuable data point. However, from what we've seen, that high score isn't necessarily an indicator of who will succeed."

According to U.S. News data, ranked online MBA programs are significantly more lenient when it comes to whether applicants must submit test scores from the GMAT or GRE. Of the 259 online MBA programs that submitted these data to U.S. News in an annual survey for the 2021 Best Online MBA Programs rankings, 125 -- or 48.3% -- said they required just the GMAT score or either the GMAT or GRE.

For on-campus programs that submitted similar data for the 2022 Best MBA Programs rankings, 47 of 138 -- or 34.1% -- identified as test-optional.

Prospective students can also consider looking into whether an on-ground MBA program has an option to earn the degree online. This may be ideal for somebody who's looking to combine face-to-face and online learning, or even just take a single class in the other format -- though policies on mixing varies among institutions.

Information on what formats are available can also benefit those who may ultimately need to transfer from one format to the other -- if they must relocate for work, for example -- though transfer policies also vary. This data point can also prove beneficial for online students who desire access to a local campus for student services and face-to-face interaction with professors.

Here are the top 10 ranked on-campus MBA programs that also offer the degree online.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.