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 starting salaries above $100K. 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, 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 that the school you choose is accredited by a recognized accreditor. This ensures that 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 may 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 — less than 10 percent of the online MBA programs in the US are AACSB accredited. (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 an extra 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."

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) in order 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 US 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.

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 that 70 percent of its users who got jobs in 2016 were hired due to networking.

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.

To check if a program offers networking opportunities, you’ll need to take a look at the program’s site. 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.

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 program office in order 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 schedules is key. A 2016 study found that students identified flexible class schedules as the most important factor when selecting an online program. This makes sense when you consider 91 percent 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 may 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 holds 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. US News & Report has a helpful list of programs that indicates if they have rolling or regular admission.

If the school is close by, you may consider a hybrid program, which rely 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.

And then, take into account cost.

Keep in mindSome 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 mean you’ll have to do some math.

The cost of an MBA can vary depending on the institution you choose. The average costs can range anywhere from $6,558 at Fayetteville State University to $104,658 at the University of North Carolina. 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.

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 in 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 US 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 in order 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 Direct Unsubsidized Loans are loans available to undergraduate and graduate students and are not dependent on financial need. Schools determine the amount you can borrow based on the cost of attendance and other financial aid. These loans include interest.
  • Direct PLUS Loans are dependent on your credit history and require a FAFSA application. The US 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 at times they can be a bit more sneaky. 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.

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.