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How to Choose the Best Online MBA Programs

  March 29th, 2019  By Brian Robson

A Guide to Finding the Right Program For You

A master of business administration (MBA) is a graduate degree that is designed to prepare students for careers in business and management. Obtaining one can lead to average salaries well above $100K, according to a March 2019 report by U.S. News & World Report. But before rushing off to submit applications, it’s important to make sure you find the program that’s right for you. We consulted statistics, articles, and business leaders to identify the ingredients of a great MBA program. Choosing a program can seem complicated, but it boils down to a few concepts — valid accreditation, resources for your personal needs, and reasonable costs.

How to Find the Best Online MBA Program for You

First: Look for a reputable school with AACSB accreditation

Like any college program, you’ll need to make sure the school you choose is accredited by a recognized accreditor. This ensures the school adheres to established educational standards and has enough resources to support its students and daily operations. The risk of attending a non-accredited university is steep — employers and other universities might not acknowledge your degree or credits.

There are three types of accreditation:

  • Regional accreditation is the most prestigious form of institutional accreditation. It indicates that an institution as a whole meets recognized quality standards. Regionally accredited schools are usually nonprofit institutions — an important consideration for prospective MBA students (more on this later).
  • National accreditation is another form of institutional accreditation. Although it is still an indication of quality, it is generally considered less prestigious due to more relaxed admission standards. Nationally accredited schools are usually vocational or for-profit institutions.
  • Specialized or programmatic accreditation applies to departments, programs, or schools — like business schools — within a larger university or institution that has already been accredited by a regional or national accrediting agency. (Free-standing professional schools can also gain accreditation from certain agencies.) Specialized or programmatic accreditation indicates an exceptional curriculum or faculty.

For MBA programs you’ll need to look for specialized or programmatic accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). This accreditation signals the business department or school in a university is top quality — of the 16,000+ business schools in the world, less than 5 percent have earned AACSB Accreditation.. (This list of AACSB-accredited programs can help with narrowing the list of potential schools.)

As long as your program is AACSB-accredited, it won’t matter if the parent institution is regionally or nationally accredited. Regional accreditation may give a leg up on a resume, but most employers and other universities will be looking for AACSB accreditation as the mark of excellence.

“The number one criteria for choosing a program comes down to AACSB accreditation — the premier accreditation that business schools attain. It is a signal of quality that says you’re going to be taught by professors with real expertise in the fields they teach.”

Dr. Elizabeth Rozell
Director of the MBA program, Missouri State University

Why to avoid for-profit MBA programs

Many for-profit schools offer online MBA programs. (A good example: As of available 2017 figures, DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School of Management had 2,646 MBA students enrolled.) According to U.S. News & Report, this is more than double the amount of MBA students enrolled at any of their top 100 online MBA programs. The numbers are impressive, but don’t let them fool you — the AACSB does not accredit for-profit programs.

That’s not to say you can’t receive a great education from a for-profit MBA program. But for-profit schools have a bad reputation for misleading recruiting practices and producing student debt rather than employment. Plus, getting an MBA from an AACSB-accredited school carries more prestige with employers and other business schools. Rozell told us, “a lot of students aren’t aware of this, but to be competitive, they’ll need to look for AACSB accreditation.”

AACSB accreditation breaks a popular rule in terms of educational quality — but it’s the exception.

Many online college guides, including our own, state that an accrediting agency must be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education (USDE) for accreditation to be valid. For the most part, this statement is true — AACSB accreditation is an exception.

The AACSB was recognized by CHEA until 2016, when the organization decided to step away and pursue certification through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The change marked a shift in focus from the U.S. to a more global focus.

There was some concern when it came out that the AACSB was not in compliance with CHEA requirements — they didn’t routinely provide reliable information to the public on student performance. But according to Dr. Rozell, business schools still treat AACSB accreditation as a premier signal of quality.

For now, choosing an MBA program with AACSB accreditation results in a more competitive degree. But, we’ll be sure to keep our eye on the world of business school accreditation and update if necessary.

How to check a program’s accreditation:

  • The CHEA database and the USDE database provide information about the accreditation agencies that are recognized as valid. AACSB accreditation won’t be listed in either database, since it is an exception to the rule.
  • The AACSB database includes all of the institutions it has accredited — the premier mark of a business school’s quality. This list provides the information for all U.S. based and global institutions accredited by the AACSB.
  • It’s a good idea to keep an eye out for fake accreditation agencies that accredit diploma mills — scams that sell illegitimate degrees. Choosing a school with AACSB accreditation will protect you, but it never hurts to double check the credentials of any program you attend.
  • Some business schools will advertise ACBSP accreditation. Although this agency is CHEA recognized, it doesn’t have the same prestige as AACSB accreditation. A lot of for-profit schools will use this accreditation as a promise of quality, but AACSB is still the way to go.

Next: Decide if you want to pursue an MBA concentration

All MBA programs will cover the core concepts of business administration. However, some programs offer concentrations — a specialization in specific subjects such as finance or international business. While a concentration isn’t necessary or required by every program, a specialized MBA degree gives you a competitive edge when pursuing a career.

If you know you want to concentrate in a specific field like finance or marketing, you can limit your search to programs that offer it — for example, BestColleges.com and Online MBA Today have lists for MBA programs with marketing concentrations.

If you’re unsure, looking at lists of concentrations or their potential salaries can help you find the right field of study. You’ll want to choose a concentration that genuinely interests you and meets your salary goals. It also never hurts to contact professionals on sites like LinkedIn to learn more about a field.

You should make a list of at least two to three concentrations you’d be interested in studying — just in case your first pick doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. Most programs offer a number of concentrations and finding a school with the right combination will prevent you from being pigeonholed into the first option you choose. In addition, many programs allow you to have more than one concentration which can make your degree even more competitive.

Don’t forget about networking

Choosing a program that will help to grow your personal network also improves your chances at finding a future career. A LinkedIn survey found 70 percent of its users who got jobs in 2016 were hired due to networking.
To check if a program offers networking opportunities, you’ll need to take a look at the program’s website. Most sites will advertise their networking resources or have contact information for the department and faculty members. Asking for a syllabus or information about group discussions or projects will give you a good idea of how often you can expect to interact with other students and professors. The more opportunities you have to build relationships with others, the better.

Past students can give you great info on networking.
Reaching out to past students on sites like LinkedIn can give additional insight about whether a program actively helped them build their networks. It’s also a good opportunity to ask advice on which classes to take for group project and discussion opportunities.

Some institutions will also have networking activities such as residency components where students meet up at certain locations for a few days or a week. During the residency, students participate in seminars, socialize, and learn from business leaders. Networking activities vary from school to school, so you’ll need to reach out to the program office to learn the finer details of what they offer.

And keep your lifestyle in mind

The right online MBA program should offer a great education but also address your personal needs — your schedule, any family responsibilities, and finances. For most students, a flexible schedule is key. A 2018 study found the flexibility of self-paced course with no set deadlines to be one of the most important factors for students when selecting an online program. This makes sense when you consider 91% of online MBA students were employed when starting their degree.

In terms of lifestyle, choosing the right program boils down to a few decisions:

  • Self-paced versus live classes: Self-paced, or asynchronous, classes mean you can access and complete class material at any time. Live, or synchronous, classes have predesignated meeting times — the professor might host a video conference or group discussion. Self-paced classes give you the most flexibility while live classes allow for more interaction. If you work full-time or have a family, self-paced classes will likely be a better bet. But if you have extra time, choosing a program with a few live classes will give you an additional chance to network.
  • In-person requirements: Even if a program offers all of its courses online, some require students to meet in person throughout the year. For example, the residency component we mentioned earlier is a requirement for the University of North Carolina’s online program. Even though in-person requirements are designed to benefit students, not everyone has the finances or time to attend activities like these. You’ll need to check the websites of the programs you’re interested in to see whether they require in person meetings. You can always contact the program office for information as well.
  • Rolling versus regular admission: Rolling admission allows students to apply during a much larger admissions window than regular admissions. Applications are also evaluated when they are received rather than after a deadline — responses are sent within a few weeks of submission. This difference only applies to students who want to start their online MBA program immediately. U.S. News & Report often indicates if programs have rolling or regular admissions in their listings.

If the school is close by, you might consider a hybrid program, which relies on a mixture of online and physical classes. If you live near an institution, have time, and like physical classes, it will give you a chance to actually sit in a classroom.

Resources to help you find the best online MBA program for you:

Concentrations

  • Filter potential schools by concentration on resources like BestColleges.com and Online MBA Today. These links are examples for a marketing concentration.
  • Checking the projected earnings of different concentrations will also help you find the concentration that matches your financial goals. PayScale’s database of potential salaries by degree and specialization is another good resource to check.
  • Connecting with professionals and past students on LinkedIn is also a great way to learn about different specializations in business administration.
  • The tech sector has some of the fastest-growing companies. If finding a job is your ultimate goal, finding a school with tech-focused concentrations can increase your chances.

Networking

Lifestyle

  • For those who want to get started on their MBA right now, rolling admissions is key. Check this list to see which programs offer rolling or regular admissions.
  • While many online programs offer more flexibility than a traditional classroom experience, an online MBA will still require some personal sacrifice. Luckily there are a lot of helpful apps and tools to help you manage your time and work-life balance.

And then, take cost into account

The cost of an MBA can vary depending on the institution you choose. The average costs can range anywhere from $35,489.27 for in-state students to $39,842.20 for out-of-state. Although an MBA is an investment, the right program shouldn’t lead to excessive debt. You’ll have to consider your current earnings or finances to make sure you can pay off your tuition, fees, and any loans you take out.

Keep in mind
Some schools offer discounts for online students, even if they’re completing the degree from out of state, while others charge more for their online MBA programs. This can affect your ROI calculations, which means you’ll have to do some math.

For MBA students, choosing an affordable program also depends on the return on investment (ROI). The ROI is essentially an estimate of how long it will take you to pay off any debt from an MBA program. It’s best to find schools that you can pay off within five years — longer payment periods mean you’ll have to pay more in total interest. For good examples of how to calculate ROI for an MBA, take a look at guides from Washington State University and U.S. News & World Report.

Explore your financial aid opportunities.

Federal aid is available to graduate students in MBA programs. The three main options students have are campus-based aid, Stafford Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans. No matter what options you choose, you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA application to determine your eligibility.

  • Campus-based aid includes federal work-study positions and the Federal Perkins Loan program. Online students will likely not be able to participate in work-study positions (due to distance and time), but can apply for low-interest loans from the Federal Perkins Loan program. The amount is dependent on each student’s financial needs and FAFSA applications.
  • Direct Stafford Loans or dependent on your credit history and require a FAFSA application. The U.S. Department of Education is the lender and the maximum amount you can borrow also depends on the cost of attendance and any other financial aid you receive.

It’s a good idea to contact the financial aid departments of the schools you consider. They’ll be able to walk you through the process of applying for loans and point you toward other financial resources, like scholarships. Plus, doing so will also give you a chance to see which program will offer the most support in terms of creating a financial plan.

Look for scholarships early on

Scholarships are a great source of financial assistance for MBA students. Since the cost of an online MBA can be incredibly high (over $100K), a lot of institutions are responding by offering more scholarship opportunities. Schools will offer their own scholarships, and many can be found by searching online. But a basic internet search will yield thousands of organizations that sponsor scholarships, so we recommend using a scholarship search platform or database — look to our own in-depth guide for more. That said, there will still be a ton of options in each database, so remember to filter your results for MBA specific scholarships or fill out a profile for personalized results.

A small warning: Like fake universities and accreditors, there are also scholarship scams. It’s usually easy to tell if a scholarship is fake, but it times they can be a bit more tricky. For example, a scholarship that claims to be open to everyone can be tempting, but it is one of many common strategies used by fake scholarship providers and platforms — legitimate scholarships always have eligibility requirements. The best way to protect yourself is to use a well-known platform that provides scholarships with proof of past winners.

Unlike loans, scholarships offer one critical benefit: you don’t have to pay them back after completing your degree. As long as you’re eligible, there is no limit to the scholarships you can apply to either — so apply away! However, scholarships often require a recommendation letter so you’ll want to start your applications as early as possible.

FAQ

Is a MBA better than a master’s degree in finance?

First and foremost, you’ll get a quality education whether you prefer the MBA or an MF (master’s degree in finance). That being said, there are some differences. Online MBAs offer a flexible path toward gaining the necessary knowledge in a broader range of topics including financing, markets, and accounting. The downside is that everyone and their mother trying to get into a competitive business school is taking this route. Whereas, taking the MF approach is a road less taken and most ideal for students who already have an idea of what finance-specific line of work they’re looking to get into.

What’s the difference between AACSB and ACBSP accreditation?

Aside from the acronyms, there are a couple subtle differences between these organizations. For one, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is not recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) whereas the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) is! The AACSB also does not accredit for-profit programs, citing their own criteria and high educational standards. ACBSP does accredit many for-profit schools and, while there is nothing saying you can’t receive a proper education from one of these, AACSB does note that you won’t receive the same level of instruction you would from schools that adhere to their its standards.

The bottom line: MBAs are worth it

While MBAs were once prized by employers and often guaranteed a job, some argue their competitive edge is disappearing. Instead, relevant work experience reigns supreme.

So is an online MBA still worth it? The short answer is yes. Research shows that MBA hiring has been steadily improving since 2011. This means that holding an MBA increases your chances of being hired. In addition, MBA programs come with high recommendations from alumni and also offer a chance to network — even if you’re an online student. While they may not hold the weight they used to, getting an MBA can be a rewarding educational and financial investment.

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