One-year MBA programmes grew in popularity this year – but are they better?

Will Railton
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Michelle Obama Delivers Commencement Address At The City College Of New York
Many MBA students worry about being off the career ladder for more than a year (Source: Getty)

In many ways, an MBA is a serious investment. Even if your employer has agreed to sponsor you, or you have managed to secure a scholarship, you’ll still need to decide how much of your time you are willing to put in – and whether the benefits of a less frantic pace of learning and more work experience will offset the drawbacks of being out of the workplace for an extra year.

Figures published this week by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) show that the number of people applying for a place on full-time two-year MBA programmes has fallen this year at over half of business schools around the world. For the first time since 2012, less than half (43 per cent) experienced more applications than last year. At the same time, the majority of full-time one-year programmes (57 per cent) saw more applicants than last year. So why are students choosing the quicker, if not easier, route?

“In an intensely competitive job market, it may be a luxury to take two years out of the workplace,” says Kathy Harvey, associate dean of MBA and executive degrees at Oxford’s Said Business School, which runs a one-year course.

Read more: The definitive list of the 25 MBAs with the best-paid graduates

Traditionally, one-year MBAs have been more popular with older students who are anxious to return to the workplace, or because they are returning to their employer after graduation. The MBA market tends to tighten in periods when jobs are scarcer – at periods when prospective students presumably feel that taking a hiatus in their career will not be so costly. “An MBA is a big investment,” says Harvey. “A one-year intensive programme gives you the opportunity to learn and return to your job or start a new career with less of a break in your CV.”

For many applicants, a one year full-time break is less risky than a two-year one. Increasing demand this year for executive and online MBAs, which allow students to stay in their job while they study, suggests a reluctance to leave the workplace entirely.

And if you’re self-funding, a one-year programme will tend to mean more affordable living costs, a lower bill for tuition, and you will only have to forgo a single year’s salary.

Choosing a shorter course doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing quality either. In fact, 26 of the top 50 courses in the 2016 Financial Times MBA rankings were one-year programmes, with France’s INSEAD leading the pack – the first time a one-year course has come top. Candidates on one-year courses still choose electives, though they may miss out on summer internships in their preferred industry, which are often golden tickets to landing a job.

Read more: Will an EMBA help me become a banker?

Of course, the decline of two-year MBAs shouldn’t be exaggerated. Two-year courses are still far more competitive than their accelerated counterparts. And some believe the quality of learning on one-year programmes is compromised by such a punishing schedule. “Applicants have to stop for a second,” Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission told Poets & Quants in January, “and ask themselves whether they are paying for three letters or an education that will have an indelible impact on their careers.”

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