Is a Part-Time MBA Program Worth It?

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In the United States, part-time programs remain the most popular delivery configuration for MBA degrees, enrolling about 56 percent of students. These include the professional MBA (PMBA) evening and weekend programs geared to working professionals, sometimes called fully-employed MBA (FEMBA) programs. They also include the executive MBA (EMBA) programs intended for seasoned executives aspiring to top management. Matt Hazenbush, research communications manager at the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), calls part-time MBA programs “nearly synonymous with graduate management education itself.”

However, controversy exists in some circles over the value of part-time MBA degrees, with Financial Times Business Education Editor Della Bradshaw arguing that these degrees are undervalued.

That may seem curious, given that at most institutions, part-time students earn the same MBA degree as the full-time students, and benefit from the same alumni network. Many reports suggest that most recruiters and hiring managers don’t care if one attended a full-time or part-time program. For example, Duke University MBA Sam Lee says, “I’ve never hard a hiring manager ask me if I did my MBA full-time or part-time, and as a hiring manager myself, I never once asked a candidate that question either; it’s simply not relevant.”

This article considers some of the factors that make a part-time on-campus or online MBA degree program worthwhile.

When is a Part-Time MBA Program Ideal?

A part-time MBA makes the most sense for those who can benefit more from the flexibility of a part-time program over the focus provided by a full-time one. Here are some cases where a part-time degree makes the most sense.

A part-time MBA may make sense for the following students:

MBA Candidates with Extensive Work Experience and No Interest in Switching Career Paths

Kim Clark, the former dean of the Harvard Business School, said that students do not turn down a seat at HBS to go to another business school; they do so because they have great opportunities at work.

Students who aren’t seeking to change their current industry or career fit well with part-time programs. Optimally, according to Lee, these include students with over seven years of work experience who have already achieved a mid- to senior-level position, and who earn well over the average that new MBA grads make in the industry.

These students don’t need the extensive career support that business schools’ career centers focus mainly on full-time students. On-campus recruiters usually only interview on-campus students, and gear their presentations towards them. At most schools, part-time students may receive less career support.

According to admissions consultant Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, a former MBA admissions dean and director at Cornell and the University of Michigan:

Part-time programs are perfect for the 24-35 year-old career enhancer but rarely serve the career changer. Part-timers typically do not have the same access to comprehensive career services as full-time programs because company presentations and interviews are typically held during the day. At one school for whom I worked, we dedicated one career services staff member to all of our professional programs (part-time, EMBA, online) serving over 1,000 students and five career services staff to the small 200-student full-time program.

However, exceptions exist. For example, those transitioning into entrepreneurship or different careers account for about half of the students in Indiana University’s highly-ranked online MBA program, and the business school appears to have taken steps to provide additional career support to these students.

MBA Candidates Seeking a Less Competitive Applicant Pool

Less competition means that an applicant stands a better chance of admission. That means one may be able to win entry to better schools offering more influential alumni networks and affiliation with more powerful university brands by applying to a school’s part-time rather than full-time division. According to Epstein:

Aggregated, the part-time applicant pool is not as competitive or as diverse in terms of admissions as schools typically receive fewer applications, and they are limited to their immediate region and the industries that dominate that industry. . .As much as schools say the quality of the full-time students and the part-time students are the same, the quality is dependent on location and how that location generates applications. Bigger cities have an easier time of attracting great applicants to their part-time program and can maintain higher quality standards, but full-time programs generate applications from around the globe, and it’s much easier to pick and choose candidates for admission.

Dramatic differences in applicant competition exist between some schools’ full-time and part-time or executive divisions. For those who might benefit from the exciting possibility of winning admission to a part-time or executive program at a better school, this excerpt from a recent analysis by Poets & Quants’ Jeff Schmitt deserves a close reading:

How much easier is it to get accepted into a part-time or executive MBA program? Look no further than Michigan Ross. . .the part-time acceptance rate is nearly 50 points higher—26.3 percent vs. 74.4 percent (with the rate being 72.6 percent for EMBA candidates at Ross).

Traditionally, Berkeley Haas ranks among the most exclusive full-time MBA programs, with just a 12 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2018. If you take the part-time route, your acceptance odds nearly quadruple to 47.4 percent for the same MBA education and degree at Haas.

Even more, among part-time applicants, the chances of being accepted rise to over 75 percent at name programs like Georgetown McDonough, Washington University’s Olin School, and USC Marshall.

Nowhere do the competitive differences between full-time and part-time or executive programs display so prominently as in GMAT scores. Consider the top 50 MBA programs as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Schmitt points out that with a 706 average score, full-time MBAs scored 83 points higher than the 623 average scored by the part-time cohort. The margin was about the same between the full-time and executive programs, but at two universities (Emory and Vanderbilt) the difference was over 100 points.

However, keep in mind that many top executive MBA programs have either opted out of requiring the GMAT or, like with most online MBA programs, will waive the requirement in exchange for sufficient work experience.

For more about GMAT and GRE waivers, see our guide What is a GMAT Waiver and How Does it Influence the MBA Application Process?

MBA Candidates with a Sponsoring Employer

A 2013 GMAC study found only 30 percent of employers willing to sponsor part-time MBA employees at least in part, and a 2015 GMAC study reported that level at 40 percent. Contrary to popular belief, the numbers aren’t much better for executive MBAs; 2016 research from the Executive MBA Council reports only 23 percent of EMBAs receive full sponsorship and 36 percent receive partial tuition reimbursement. Exceptions exist, such as Northwestern University, where 66 percent of the latest EMBA class is either fully or partially sponsored. Nevertheless, these days any employer willing to pay for graduate management education provides a substantial incentive favoring part-time attendance.

MBA Candidates with Financial Challenges

Higher education has now become the second-largest expense for an individual in their lifetime, only topped by buying a home. In 2014, New York University’s Stern School of Business became the first full-time MBA program to crash through the $200,000 total cost barrier. Today, these kinds of total cost estimates have become common at the best private schools and even some public universities, but they still don’t entirely account for all the costs many fail to recognize.

Total costs also involve opportunity costs: the economists’ concept of the costs of foregoing one thing in favor of something else. In that respect, $400,000 might seem more like the real cost of an elite MBA degree. Why? That’s because the opportunity cost from sacrificing a well-paying job for two years drives total costs way above tuition, fees, and living expenses at Stanford and similar universities; in general, students at those schools leave jobs already paying more than $85,000 a year.

Not surprisingly, this chart from U.S. News & World Report clearly depicts how many full-time MBA students end up borrowing substantial sums to pay for their degrees. In fact, full-time MBA students in the Class of 2016 racked up $262 million in debt just at the top 10 schools. In all, 14 schools among the top 50 witnessed average student debts climb above $100,000, up from just two schools five years earlier; they range from $130,446 at the University of Pennsylvania to $101,667 at Carnegie Mellon.

By contrast, Schmitt points out that the debt situation appears better for part-time students:

Although part-time and executive MBAs still draw paychecks and (often) some support, debt loads remain touch-and-go. Just look at the data supplied by five business schools ranked in U.S. News’ Top 25 which supplied student loan information. . . .in four out of five schools, part-time MBAs incurred less debt than their full-time peers. For example, the difference came to more than $43,000 at Ross ($59,014 vs. $102,605), going as low as a $4,200 difference at Haas ($83,288 vs. $87,546). At the same time, the percentage of part-time MBAs in debt was lower at three of these five schools.

Debt levels increase further because part-time students don’t usually have access to fellowships or scholarships from a business school. However, taking one or two classes a semester in a part-time MBA program means students will at least spread their payments among smaller amounts over an extended interval, possibly making educational costs more manageable.

MBA Candidates with Financial, Family or Community Commitments

For most people who already have mortgages, spouses or children, quitting jobs and moving to go to graduate school may not provide a viable option. Besides, a less rigid and time-consuming class schedule than a full-time one might mean students can invest more of their time in other aspects of their life, like family obligations.

MBA Candidates Who Want to Apply Lessons Immediately

Part-time programs may enable students to apply what they learn and test classroom theories on-the-job without delay.

Networking: Full-Time MBA vs. Part-Time MBA

In terms of the number of potential contacts, networking might be the one area where the full-time programs maintain an edge over the part-time and executive programs. According to Schmitt:

. . .there is the network, with full-time MBA programs averaging 228 students per class, compared to 147 students for part-time MBAs and 71 students for executive programs. In other words, full-time MBAs can naturally build wider and deeper networks.
In theory, this size means full-time programs tend to carry more clout.

This advantage, however, can be negated (to an extent) since most students in executive and part-time MBA programs are paying full sticker price. This gives them a pretty loud microphone when push comes to shove. That power center is even more pronounced at programs like Washington Foster, USC Marshall, Georgia Tech Scheller, Rice Jones, and Maryland Smith, where the part-time and executive MBA cohorts—combined—far outnumber their full-time sidekicks.

Furthermore, in some part-time programs—and especially in many executive MBA programs—students are seasoned professionals with diverse and impressive backgrounds from an array of different industries. Many classmates in these programs have already reached mid-level or senior positions. With more real-world experience, these students enrich classroom discussions with more relevant and interesting contributions. In these programs, students can learn as much from classmates as they learn from faculty.

Meeting Potential Business Partners or Investors

Unlike full-time students, the students in part-time and executive MBA programs may not spend as much time networking with classmates or have access to as many potential contacts. However, the part-time and executive MBA students may experience networking opportunities with classmates who possess more capabilities and influence as potential business partners and investors. According to another Duke University MBA, Favio Osorio:

Most students have had more time to accumulate capital. If you are an entrepreneur and wish to start a business during your MBA, you are going to be surrounded by people who have more capital available and might be ready to dispose of it intelligently. At Duke, my experience has been that we are not only looking at each other as Weekend Executive MBA (WEMBA) classmates or friends; we are looking at each other as potential business partners.

When an Online Part-Time MBA Program Especially Makes Sense

A part-time online MBA makes even more sense for those with:

Preferences for Maximum Flexibility

Innovative online MBA programs offer students tremendous flexibility advantages. That’s because recent instructional technology advances now provide an online educational experience equivalent to and in many ways better than instruction on campus, yet unconstrained by distance or time. As a result, these online programs offer tremendous opportunities to students who cannot leave jobs to attend classes on campus, or who wish to attend better out-of-state universities without the expense and hassle of relocation. Plus, for students who want to learn at their own pace, personalized online education provides an attractive alternative; motivated and gifted students, in particular, can thrive at the accelerated pace made possible by these online programs.

Additional Financial Challenges

Online programs also save students money. Even when tuition rates are identical, the online MBA programs can present more cost-effective alternatives to on-campus programs because of savings on costs like relocation, childcare, and transportation.

An Interest in Developing Virtual Communication Skills

Online collaboration through virtual teams is the future of business, and virtual communication skills are rapidly gaining significance. As Northeastern University suggests, multimedia tools and interactive classrooms provide students the opportunities to hone their virtual communication capabilities, boost knowledge retention, and engage in enhanced class discussions through online forums.

Interviewed in 2014, attorney Ana-Laura Diaz—one of the inaugural 18 students to enroll in the University of North Carolina’s MBA@UNC online degree program—remarked:

I didn’t have a problem making connections online. With Facebook and text messaging being the new norm, people are used to having their best friend live states away and only seeing them twice a year. . . Plus, you’re learning how to interact professionally online, skills people will need more of in the future.

Motivation to Build a Global Professional Network

Since in online programs students can study from almost anywhere, they could have classmates from various regions of the nation or from all over the world.

Preferences for Concentrated Networking Opportunities and Travel

Some students prefer the concentrated networking opportunities that residency and immersion trips provide online students. Most of the better online MBA programs require these programs, during which students who usually see each other on computer screens assemble in person, either on campus or at carefully chosen off-campus venues.

In these meetings, students typically spend three-day weekends engaging in seminars, learning from business leaders—and above all, developing personal connections through networking. Business schools intend for these trips to promote bonding among students who regularly see each other in online classrooms instead of those on campus.

For more about residency and immersion trips for online students, see our guide, Do Online MBA Programs Require Residency or Campus Visitation?

Closing Thoughts: The Value of a Part-Time MBA Program

Yes, part-time MBA programs are definitely worth it for the right students!

Part-time and executive MBA programs go beyond making a business school education accessible to those otherwise unable to afford the financial sacrifices, time commitments, and family lifestyle disruptions required by a full-time counterpart. Many part-time and executive programs offer exceptional educational quality, influential alumni networks, and an affiliation with powerful university brands to students who might otherwise find themselves restricted to lower-tier full-time programs.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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