How Long Does it Take to Complete an MBA Program?

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The skills and knowledge gained from a master of business administration (MBA) degree program prepare graduates for business leadership roles, which can result in higher salaries and better job opportunities. Of course, an MBA program requires a substantial investment of resources and, perhaps most significantly, time.

So how much time do students actually need to get an MBA? This guide explains how much time different types of MBA programs generally require, and considers what factors can shorten or lengthen the time intervals students will need to graduate.

Historically, ever since the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration established the world’s first MBA program in 1908, most on-campus, full-time MBA programs usually required two years to complete, and that tradition continues today.

During the first year, students explore key business concepts in general “core” courses focusing on marketing, accounting, business ethics, finance, statistics, project management, leadership, and related disciplines. Over the following summer, students usually work in internships related to their expected jobs upon graduation, or may take classes during their business school’s summer session. Then, during the second year, students take courses specifically focusing on the disciplines they select for their “majors” or “fields of concentration” (if applicable), along with electives.

For example, the Harvard Business School, requires four academic terms over two years to complete, with the first two terms for required courses and the second two for electives. This is typical of most traditional on-campus MBA programs.

Do Some MBA Programs Permit a Shorter Time to Completion?

Many students want to finish an MBA in less than the traditional two-year interval. To meet those students’ needs, many universities allow students to take greater than average course loads each term so they can graduate in a shorter period. These days, many business schools offer these “accelerated” programs not only through on-campus instruction, but also through online formats.

Accelerated On-Campus MBA Programs

Generally, accelerated on-campus MBA programs enable students to graduate in 18 months or less. These programs offer instructional quality equivalent to that found in non-accelerated counterparts, along with similar selections of networking and career development opportunities. However, many of these programs offer greatly reduced overall completion times—some as short as one year.

For example, Columbia University shaves one semester off of its two-year on-campus MBA program, allowing qualified students to enter their accelerated program in January and finish in only 16 months. All students then take the same set of core and elective courses during their last two semesters.

The one-year MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management permits students to finish their on-campus program in even less time than Columbia’s. How? Kellogg expedites their program by allowing qualified students to complete three to five required courses over the summer. Those students then join the second-year full-time program class to complete electives that match their interests and enhance their career goals.

Accelerated Online MBA Programs

Innovative MBA programs offering 100 percent online curricula offer students tremendous flexibility advantages. That’s because recent instructional technology advances now provide an online educational experience equivalent to instruction on campus, yet unconstrained by distance or time. As a result, these online MBA 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 wish 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 MBA programs.

For example, the online MBA program from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, which the university brands as MBA@UNC, requires only 18 months. The entirely online MBA@UNC curriculum emphasizes strategic leadership; students can develop industry-specific expertise in their current or desired field by selecting from eight concentrations.

For students with the focus, drive, and motivation to complete a rigorous business education on an even faster accelerated timeline, the online MBA from American University’s Kogod School of Business offers a degree track which students can complete in as little as one year. Along with the MBA@UNC program, American’s highly demanding program is one of the few online programs accredited by the prestigious Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). American’s program is also one of even fewer accredited by the AACSB that students can complete in just one year.

Because accelerated programs like those at Northwestern, Columbia, American, and UNC tend to be more demanding because of their faster pace, accelerated MBA students usually possess strong undergraduate academic histories, along with solid work experience track records.

What Other Kinds of MBA Programs Offer Completion Flexibility?

Business schools also offer programs tailored to the needs of students with special circumstances, experience, and aspirations. MBA programs adapted for these students can require more or less than the traditional two years, with many programs offering a generous limit, such as five years, to actually complete the degree. Whether offered on campus or online, these programs generally fall into three main categories: executive, part-time, and dual degree programs. Some business schools offer multiple fields of concentration as well.

Executive MBA Programs

Experienced professionals who work full-time yet want to earn a business degree may prefer to enroll in an executive MBA (EMBA) program. First introduced by the University of Chicago in 1943, EMBA programs usually offer classes on weekends or evenings. Because of this flexibility, and because these programs attract students with extensive work experience who can provide valuable networking opportunities, many experienced professionals find EMBA programs more attractive than traditional on-campus offerings.

Completion times depend on the program and, in some cases, on the schedule students select. For example, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania offers one MBA degree in two formats: their traditional, full-time MBA program, or their executive MBA program which meets every other Friday and Saturday. Wharton’s Executive MBA program takes about four months longer than their typical 20-month full-time program.

In addition, Columbia University offers 20-month and 24-month options depending on which weekend schedule students select. At the University of Chicago, classes meet for the entire day every other Friday and Saturday; it takes 21 months total. And at the University of California at Berkeley, classes meet Thursday through Saturday every three weeks over 19 months.

Part-Time MBA Programs

Students can also balance a job and graduate school through part-time MBA programs. As with executive MBA programs, students often take courses in the evenings and on weekends. But in contrast to the executive MBA programs, these programs can offer less stringent work experience admission requirements, more flexible class schedules, and longer completion times.

For example, the University of Chicago’s evening and weekend programs allow students to continue working while studying for an MBA at a flexible pace. Completion takes between 30 and 36 months on average, and students have up to five years to finish.

Moreover, the U.S. News & World Report’s top-ranked part-time MBA program is available at the University of California at Berkeley. Students can earn a part-time Haas School of Business MBA in three years, attending class on evenings and Saturdays. The school’s traditional MBA program, by contrast, takes 21 months.

Joint & Dual Degrees

Dual degree programs allow students to simultaneously pursue an MBA along with another graduate degree. By contrast, in a joint degree program, credit from a single course may count toward both degrees. Probably the classic example of a joint degree program is a joint JD/MBA degree offered in conjunction with a law school.

At Stanford University, More than 20 percent of Stanford MBA students take advantage of a joint or dual degree to complement their MBA. Most of the joint degree programs offer second master’s degrees in fields like international policy studies, environment and resources, electrical engineering, computer science, and public policy. These joint degree programs usually take about nine academic quarters to complete over three years. In addition, Stanford Business School students may pursue a dual degree with any graduate program at Stanford University.

Multiple Concentrations

Some business schools allow students to combine two or more elective concentrations to gain greater flexibility in the job market and stand out as the best MBA candidate in their ideal career. For instance, a student interested in a finance career in a global company might benefit from the detailed knowledge a dual concentration in finance and international business provides.

Multiple concentrations seem to work best within part-time or executive MBA programs, because one or more additional concentration fields will usually lengthen the time required to complete the MBA degree overall.

One good example of a program that offers multiple concentrations is offered by the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Students at Lerner can select multiple concentrations in areas such as finance, business analytics, healthcare, strategic leadership, and international business.

Conclusion: Typical MBA Duration

This guide’s sample demonstrates how MBA programs vary widely in their completion time interval requirements.

To summarize, accelerated MBA programs typically require between 12 and 18 months. At the other extreme, part-time MBA programs generally require between 30 months to five years; longer completion times are common among students employed full-time, as well as among those who select joint and dual degrees or multiple concentrations. Finally, most executive MBA programs straddle the middle range, with the majority concentrated somewhere around 19 to 24 months.

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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