How Much Are Online MBA Programs? A Guide to the Cost of Business School


The costs of online MBA degree programs vary dramatically. However, the programs’ cost can often be offset by the potential boost in earnings that having an MBA can bring. The 2020 salary survey completed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that MBA graduates have an average starting salary of $75,197 per year. This is over $17,000 more per year than the average for graduates of bachelor’s in business programs.

Picking an MBA program can be difficult as there are numerous factors to consider, including the cost. Potential students should ensure their program is accredited, has the elective or concentrations they are considering, have high-quality faculty that are thought leaders, and that there are strong networking opportunities. Comparing costs can be more complicated as there are objective and subjective elements that can affect the price.

To help students who are comparing program prices and understand the factors that contribute to the differences, analyzed a sample of 33 online MBA programs. There were several high-quality programs offered online at very affordable rates, as well as several features that appear to correlate with higher prices.

This guide presents a few examples of affordable, mid-range, and high-end online MBA programs. Then, to put the cost data in perspective, this article reviews some of the benefits of attending an MBA program, followed by some of the features that distinguish the high-end programs.

What Online MBA Programs Cost: Examples

In our sample, the average cost-per-credit amounted to $1,100, with the least expensive institution charging $302 and the most, $1,765. Here are some examples of affordable, mid-range, and high-end programs.

Online MBA Program Examples: Most Affordable ($950 and Below)

Arizona State University, W. P. Carey School of Business

Ranked #5 in the U.S. News “Best Online MBA Programs,” ASU charges $512 per credit (excluding fees), significantly less than our sample’s average. The school offers a global immersion program and online student clubs but doesn’t provide synchronous courses or the other features that the high-end programs typically furnish. Classes are taken one at a time for five weeks each, allowing students the time to focus on only one subject. Students have access to the same outstanding career support services that on-campus students have.

University of Illinois, Gies College of Business

At $302 per credit, the University of Illinois Coursera-powered “iMBA” online degree (featured in our digital marketing and general management MBA program guides) ranked as the lowest cost program in our sample. The degree demonstrates how low cost doesn’t necessarily equate to low quality among online MBA programs.

Admissions may be competitive, but at a surprising $22,000 for the degree, tuition only amounts to about one-fifth of the $100,000 the university charges for their on-campus program and about one-third the cost of online MBAs from comparable institutions.

Coursera reports that the University of Illinois ranked among Times Higher Education’s 50 most powerful university brands in the world, and U.S. News & World Report initially ranked the school #29 among online MBA programs, just a few months after the university introduced the program late in 2016.

University of Delaware, Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

At $950 per credit, the online MBA program from the University of Delaware (featured in our accelerated online healthcare MBA program guide) also ranked as one of the more affordable in our sample. U.S. News ranked the program #32 in “Best Online MBA Programs.”

The school doesn’t offer synchronous courses or consulting projects but does provide global immersions and student clubs. Each student is also assigned their own career coach to help prepare them for a career post-graduation. Students can complete the MBA curriculum entirely online in as few as 16 months.

Southern New Hampshire University

SNHU has 15 career-focused online MBA concentrations and only charges $627 per credit. The most popular concentrations include human resources, project management, and health care.

This program not only provides students with an MBA but also offers numerous industry-standard credentials that students can earn, helping them to create competitive resumes before even graduating. Students are required to take seven core courses that are scenario-based learning. This approach gives students real-world examples to apply what they have learned to develop solutions and overcome problems.

Online MBA Program Examples: Mid-Range ($950 to $1,400)

University of Cincinnati, Lindner College of Business

Charging $975 per credit for part-time, out-of-state tuition, Cincinnati ranked close to our average. Like Delaware, this public institution doesn’t offer synchronous courses or consulting projects but does provide global immersions, career coaching, and student clubs.

Courses are structured as a blend of academic coursework and research-intensive projects that aim to prepare students with the necessary skills to excel in the workplace. Cincinnati’s curriculum requires 12 semester-credits in a concentration along with 26 credits worth of the MBA program core courses.

North Carolina State University, Poole College of Management

The online MBA at NC State is close to average as well. Current fees are $1,153.88 per credit hour. This program is highly regarded and ranked 12th best online MBA program by The Princeton Review. Students are afforded a lot of flexibility in this program, and they can complete their studies in as little as 21 months or in as long as six years.

Professors offer virtual office hours in order to provide online students with opportunities to interact one on one with them. Most courses require students to collaborate through virtual teams to complete projects. There are intensive career coaching opportunities as well as webinars and learning labs to help students launch themselves successfully into the workplace. Two on-campus residency experiences provide students with valuable face-to-face networking with peers and faculty.

Online MBA Program Examples: High-End ($1,400 and Above)

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

At $1,728 per credit, the online MBA program from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, which the university brands as [email protected], ranked as the second most expensive in our sample.

Notably, U.S. News ranked this program highly at #1 in “Best Online MBA Programs” while rating the school’s overall MBA program 20th in the nation. Moreover, every course involves at least weekly synchronous, live class sessions. The program also offers students consulting projects, student clubs, and quarterly global immersions. The online [email protected] curriculum requires only 18 months and emphasizes strategic leadership; through a choice of five concentrations, students can cultivate industry-specific expertise in their current or planned field.

George Washington University School of Business

The online MBA program from George Washington University, also profiled in our accelerated online healthcare MBA program guide, ranked as the most expensive in our sample at $2,105 per credit. This private school offers students the opportunity to pursue a graduate certificate in one of seven areas during the online business program.

While this program may seem costly, the prestige of completing a George Washington University MBA can lead to better job opportunities and higher earning potential. The consulting abroad programs are available to all students and prepare graduates to enter a global workplace. Online classes are a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning, allowing students to complete the bulk of their studies at their own pace but also develop meaningful relationships with faculty.

Features Offered by Higher-Cost Online MBA Programs

What goes into the costs of attending an online MBA program? Poets and Quants (P&Q) explains:

The vast majority of online options are significantly less expensive than their residential counterparts. But programs vary greatly, and the more expensive online alternatives often feature live weekly internet classes, in-residence experiences, global immersions, a larger portfolio of elective courses, and one-on-one career coaching.

P&Q describes how employers were more likely to pay for online MBA programs ten years ago. As students increasingly funded online education without employer support, they also started demanding more from the schools. Besides the above features, students also requested real consulting projects requiring live presentations, one-on-one executive coaches, and full access to career development centers.

Talking about online programs, Bob Dammon, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, remarks:

They all have slightly different models, and it’s important for students to understand the differences and whether they will get direct access to faculty and classmates and a personalized degree experience. For some, that may not be important. But we have a very high satisfaction level, higher than even our full-time program.

Overall, there are several general factors that correlate with a higher price tag. Drawing from a P&Q table of distance-based MBAs, here are some of the features associated with a higher per-credit cost.

Academic Brand Recognition

Half of the table’s most expensive eight entries are occupied by online MBA programs affiliated with major university brands—or by business schools that command stature as major brands by themselves. Specifically, these schools include Carnegie Mellon, the University of North Carolina, Syracuse University, and Indiana University. These are schools with long track records of robust evaluations by ranking authorities.

One authority, U.S. News, affords its single greatest weight (25 percent) to peer assessments by business school deans and MBA program directors who rate each other’s programs, essentially measuring reputations. While less expensive schools may be affiliated with major brands, they are often satellite campuses such as West Texas A&M, Wisconsin- Whitewater, or Tennessee- Martin.

Public vs. Private

Private institutions typically charge the most; the universities that cost the least are all public and at the bottom of the list. Sometimes public universities will offer the same rate to in-state and out-of-state students, further driving down the price of earning an MBA.

However, many private institutions have more financial aid or scholarship opportunities than public institutions, so the costs can sometimes be comparable for eligible students.

Synchronous Courses

Schools charging the most include those offering synchronous courses. Using video conferencing, these courses enable students to interact live and in real-time with their professor and other students in an online class that meets at regularly scheduled times. Synchronous courses provide an online experience that can feel very similar to on-campus classes and can encourage students and professors to collaborate on teamwork and develop relationships.

It’s significant that all three of the highest-ranked schools in the U.S. News 2018 “Best Online MBA Programs” rely heavily on synchronous course delivery. For example, at Carnegie Mellon, 64 percent of courses involve live 30-student classes held two evenings a week for 70 minutes. At Indiana University, 60 percent of courses are synchronous, delivered live in weekly classes. And at the University of North Carolina, every course involves weekly live class sessions.

It’s also significant that schools charging the least exclusively generally offer asynchronous courses, which may boast tremendous scheduling flexibility but lack any real-time interaction with faculty or other students.

Global Immersions

These trips give students opportunities to travel to major business centers around the world. The University of North Carolina explains:

During immersions, students join their classmates, professors, and influential business leaders to engage in collaborative learning experiences, take in the local culture, and develop invaluable personal and professional relationships.

All the most costly programs offer these trips, but not all of the least expensive provide them. However, it should be noted that these trips are at an additional, often significant, cost.

Consulting Projects

Almost all the pricey schools hook students up with client companies for consulting projects; few of the least costly provide this business “matchmaking” service. These consulting projects offer students the unique experience to complete proposals that can directly benefit an organization.

Typically, faculty members with consulting experience oversee a team of students who work and interact with a corporate client. Students are expected to provide comprehensive, actionable plans that address the client’s needs. Consulting projects not only offer real-world work experience but can help students build a strong portfolio that can help secure lucrative career opportunities.

Career Coaching

Finding meaningful work after earning an MBA is critical. Students who have high career aspirations will benefit greatly from the career coaching services offered through many of the MBA programs. The type of services vary and can include something as basic as access to a career center to a more hands approach of an assigned mentor. All the high-end schools provide students one-on-one career coaching; only a few of the most affordable offer this feature.

Some schools also rely on their successful alumni for career coaching services, so students interested in a particular field, such as sports marketing or health care, should see if their institution offers networking or mentorship opportunities.

Student Clubs

Building relationships with peers is a large part of completing an MBA program. This can often be difficult to accomplish with distance learning, but some programs overcome this with student clubs. These clubs are typically centered around concentrations such as finance, marketing, or entrepreneurship. In these clubs, students often will complete consulting projects, participate in competitions, and even launch their own companies providing valuable real-world experience and strong resume-building projects.

All the big-ticket schools offer networking opportunities through exclusive online student clubs; once again, this feature only appears at a few of the least costly schools. Larger schools may even have in-person student clubs based in metropolitan areas that distance learning students can take advantage of.

The Bottom Line

High-priced schools typically offer more of the features that the best-qualified applicants demand in online MBA programs. Moreover, a robust correlation indeed exists between price and program quality as measured by rankings like those published by U.S. News or the Poets and Quants inaugural chart of their top 25 online MBA programs.

However, that price/quality correlation doesn’t apply in every case. Because of remarkable exceptions, such as the new iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, there’s plenty of hope for online MBA program applicants looking for a quality education that’s also affordable.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

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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