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The best online MBA programs of 2019

The USC Marshall School of Business.

Call them the party crashers. In the second annual Poets&Quants ranking of online MBA programs, three universities surpassed last year’s dominant winner, Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. And two of them came out of nowhere. 

The University of Southern California Marshall School of Business topped this year’s ranking with its novel, fully in-house online MBA program. Launched in 2015, the program didn’t have enough alumni to participate in last year’s inaugural P&Q online MBA ranking. This year, they had enough, and the overwhelmingly positive alumni satisfaction rates helped to propel the school’s online offering into a first-place finish.

Up next, Auburn University’s Harbert School of Business catapulted from 10th in last year’s ranking to second, passing last year’s first and second-place finishers. Auburn was followed by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in third and Carnegie Mellon in fourth. Lehigh University rounded out the top five, rising one spot from last year’s sixth place finish.

Top Ten Online MBA Programs Of 2019

  1. USC Marshall School of Business, $99,692
  2. Auburn University Harbert College of Business, $34,125
  3. Indiana University Kelley School of Business, $67,830
  4. Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business, $132,000
  5. Lehigh University College of Business & Economics, $42,300
  6. University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, $124,345
  7. University of Florida Warrington College of Business, $58,000
  8. University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business, $30,240
  9. Hofstra University Zarb College of Business, $63,435
  10. University of Texas-Dallas Jindal School of Management, $94,261

 

SCHOOLS ARE RANKED ON ADMISSIONS STANDARDS, THE ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE & CAREER OUTCOMES

In all, 35 U.S. business schools were able to meet the criteria to be ranked by Poets&Quants. Those 35 schools completed a highly detailed survey and all but Louisiana State University allowed us to survey their alumni. Given the relative newness of online degree programs as well as the lack of resources often devoted to them, many schools do a mediocre job of tracking their alumni and following up with them. That makes these top ranked schools stand apart from the crowd. Among the 34 schools surveyed, 1,297 out of 7,095 alums responded, for a response rate of a little more than 18%.

Like last year’s debut ranking, schools were measured on three equally weighted parts: admissions standards, an alumni assessment of the program’s academic and extracurricular experience, and career outcomes (see: How We Crunched The Numbers). Among admissions data, we examined the average undergraduate GPAs of students, the average work experience of the most recently accepted class, the acceptance rate for applicants, and average class scores on standardized tests, the GMAT and the GRE. 

This year, we also gave schools credit for enrolling students who did not submit a standardized test but had ten or more years of experience. That change from the debut ranking was made in consultation with several business schools. For the online MBA experience, we relied on alumni answers to 11 questions that probed the essence of their education, from the quality of professors and class projects to their fellow classmates (see: How Online MBA Alums Rated Their Schools). For career outcomes, we asked alums if the program helped them to achieve a salary increase or promotion at work, whether it allowed them to accomplish their primary and secondary professional goals, and how well career services worked on their behalf.

MORE SCHOOLS ARE JUMPING ON THE ONLINE MBA BANDWAGON

The recognition those top five programs are getting comes at a time when online MBAs have become more of a credible option than ever before. Every month, more highly prominent business schools are jumping on the online bandwagon. Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business just entered its first cohort this year. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the highest ranked U.S. business school to get into the game, has announced plans to launch an online option next fall. 

So have University of California-Davis, the first UC-system school to offer an online MBA, and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. UC-Davis is among three new online MBAs being launched by online education provider 2U in 2019, additions that will bring its MBA partners to ten different schools. Even the University of Iowa’s Tippie School of Business, which dumped its full-time residential MBA a couple of years ago, recently said it will reintroduce the MBA in an online version in the fall of 2019.

“There is a whole generation of people we are seeing who would rather learn through online than come to classrooms,” says H. Rao Unnava, dean of the business school at UC-Davis. “Online makes a lot of sense for them. There is a large segment of people who would probably want to do their MBA degree online.”

ALREADY THERE ARE NEARLY 300 ONLINE MBA PROGRAMS IN THE U.S. ALONG

“Technology is changing in ways that have affected many other industries and it’s now starting to affect education,” says Robert Dammon, dean of Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “It’s my belief that at some point, and that point is not too far in the future, people will be able to customize their education for what fits their lifestyle best. They may do some online learning. They may do some on campus learning. They may do an internship on the west coast and take courses online. They will mix and match what’s best for them at that particular time.”

Already, there are nearly 300 online MBA programs in the U.S. alone at nearly every price point, from the University of Illinois’ highly disruptive $22,000 online offering with Coursera to Carnegie Mellon’s $133,680. “The number of institutions who are going into this marketplace is increasing everyday,” says Jim Parrish, the director of full-time and online MBAs at Auburn’s Harbert School. “There is a lot of red ocean right now and we need to figure out what the blue ocean strategy is.” 

Many of the soon-to-launch online options at big brand schools will comfortably reach into the six fixtures, with the University of Michigan expected to price its program at $123,000 for out-of-state students. Scott DeRue, dean of the Ross School of Business, is promising a compelling hybrid offering that will lean heavily on experiential learning, just as its full-time residential MBA. “If  you’re  an  online  MBA  student  at  Ross,  you’re  going  to  engage  in  a  number  of  residencies,  whether  it  be  in  Ann  Arbor or some  place  in  the  world,  where  you  will be working  in  globally  diverse  teams, with  real  companies like Google and Facebook on  real  problems,” he says. “And  you  are  going to  be  merging  your  education  with  the  hands-on,  action-based  learning  that  defines  a  Michigan  Ross  MBA.  That’s  going to  be  a  very  hybrid-like  experience  that  we’re  really  excited  about.” 

USC’S DEBUT PROGRAM BUILT FROM VISITING OTHER TOP PROGRAMS

Just about every dean is predicting still more competitors in this marketplace. “The online MBA is only going to improve and increase,” according to Sandra Chrystal, the vice dean for online learning at USC Marshall. “More and more students realize that they can get a high quality education online. The technology and pedagogy have come together in a way that was not possible ten years ago.”

With a total cost of $105,542, USC’s newfangled online MBA is one of the pricier long-distance options. But with a completion time of 21 months, it’s also one of the shorter programs. Chrystal says the genesis of the program goes back about five years. In 2013, the school started experimenting with online learning, offering some electives to full-time MBA students. And by 2015, the school had its full-fledged online MBA curriculum, developed by a team of top professors from the full-time MBA.

The idea for an online MBA came from Marshall Dean James Ellis. “He felt the time was right and it was important strategically to enter the online MBA space,” says Phil Griego, assistant dean of online learning. The team began having conversations with the online programs already established at USC as well as a couple other top online MBA programs. Chrystal visited the administrators of Indiana Kelley’s online program and the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Kelley does it’s production in-house while, Kenan-Flagler uses the third party production service, 2U. Seeing the difference was influential in the creation of USC’s program. “I really felt the quality of IU Kelley’s production people and working with support of the faculty was very important,” Chrystal recalls. Plus, USC is in the heart of global production. “We already have the video production folks at USC,” Greigo points out. The result is an innovative program where data analytics and strategy is incorporated into every single class.

ONLINE MBA OPTION ONLY GETTING MORE POPULAR

While USC’s program is new and built with Hollywood-esque production, second-place Auburn’s online MBA has roots going back nearly 30 years. In 1989, Auburn’s Harbert School began filming full-time MBA courses and sending the videos out via VHS. Eventually that evolved to DVDs and in 2010 went exclusively online. And according to Stan Harris, the associate dean of graduate and international programs at Auburn Harbert, online MBAs in general have surged in popularity over the past five years. “When you first heard online, the thought was it was watered-down,” Harris says. “You weren’t getting real faculty or content. It just wasn’t real.” That is no longer true. Today, many programs put in online programs their best faculty, the same professors who teach in their residential programs.

There are at least two major differences in online MBAs versus full-time residential MBAs. One is the age and work experience of the students and the second is admissions standards and competitiveness. Consider No. 1 ranked USC Marshall. The acceptance rate for the school’s full-time MBA program is 28%; for the online MBA option, it’s 53%. Meantime, average work experience upon entering the program is 11 years for the online version but just five for the full-time residential program. Plus, the average GMAT for the full-time program is 705, but it is more than 50 points lower for the online program at 648.

It’s similar for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The average work experience for the online program is about 10 years versus the five years for the full-time program. The average GMAT for the full-time program is 702; for the online program, it’s 649. 

Schools say that because online MBAs typically boast more work experience, often similar to candidates in Executive MBA programs, standardized test scores should be less influential in their admissions policies. “The quality of the students we are getting is unquestionable,” Chrystal says, noting about a quarter of the students enrolled already have advanced degrees. “The students are learning from one another in the classroom as well as from the faculty. The discussions in the classes are rich.”

One thing is certain. Every year, would-be students are likely to have more online options from which to choose and more brand name business schools are expected to enter the space.

“There was a time early on that the term online MBA wouldn’t be used because of the negative connotation,” Auburn’s Harris says. But over the past five years that has changed. Largely because of top ranked business schools entering the market and schools using the same faculty and curriculum as the full-time MBA option.