How online and part-time MBAs compare with full-time study

Emerging course options have benefits, but networks matter

Full-time MBAs, long the gold standard of business education, face increasing competition from more flexible part-time and online options. Data from the General Management Admissions Council (GMAC) shows that the number of students taking online MBAs grew by 20 per cent between July 2011 and June 2012. And prestigious business schools such as Stanford, Warwick and Manchester now offer either free online access to some modules, or full content part-time and distance learning courses, incorporating elements of face-to-face teaching.

But there are important – and not necessarily obvious – differences between full-time and alternative study options. Candidates should carefully consider the benefits and drawbacks of each before making a choice.

“Course prices vary significantly across different areas of the market,” says Dorothy Griffiths, professor at Imperial College Business School. Tuition fees for Warwick Business School’s full-time MBA total £33,000 for 2014 entry, compared to £20,850 (£6,950 over three years) for its distance learning equivalent. The latter involves up to 30 hours of independent online study each week, and two three-day trips to Warwick in a year. Purely online options, like the Open University’s MBA, can be even cheaper – at £14,465, including all study materials.

Crucially, part-time options allow candidates to stay in their jobs while studying. “The flexibility to work anywhere with an internet connection is a major appeal for many who choose the online and distance learning options,” says Nigel Pye of Warwick Business School. And Devendra Kodwani of the Open University points out that many distance learning students can qualify for employee sponsorship for their MBAs – 80 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have sponsored students on Open University programmes.

But the differences do not just boil down to costs and flexibility. “Part-time and distance learning courses tend to have a highly practical approach to learning,” says Pye. Students are encouraged to apply their knowledge directly in the workplace, soon after completing a relevant module.

“This presents a much more flexible version of the traditional case study approach,” Kodwani says. While full-time MBA students may labour on generalised case studies, irrelevant to their particular industry, part-time and distance learning could allow you to leverage the workplace as a learning environment. “The case studies are as flexible as the variety of students, and they can learn from each others’ experiences,” he says.

According to Zoya Zaitseva of QS Top MBA, this emphasis on shared learning through online forums makes it particularly important to ask about the student cohort before applying, since it can vary massively. Warwick’s distance learning MBA, for example, has an average age of 36, with typical students aged between their early 20s to late 50s, compared to an average age of 28.6 for London Business School’s full-time MBA. And GMAC found that only 49 per cent of applicants for US pure online MBA programmes had more than six years of work experience, falling to 46 per cent for part-time MBA applicants.

The highly practical approach to learning, central to part-time and distance learning courses, may make them more suitable for candidates who are planning to stay within the industry or business they already work in. “Distance learning options are often used to accelerate a candidate’s career in a particular company,” says Griffiths. “But full-time MBAs are typically a springboard to a career change or a move to a management position.” The most recent GMAC figures support this, showing that 79 per cent of online and distance learning MBA graduates continued with their prior employment, compared to just 9 per cent for the full-time two year option.

“The choice often boils down to what you want out of business education,” says Simon Learmount, professor at Cambridge Judge Business School. “Online and distance learning MBAs are great for acquiring technical and functional skills, but there is no substitute for face-to-face learning when it comes to the key communication, negotiation and leadership skills required in management.”

The potential to build a set of business contacts and feel part of a student cohort may also make the full-time MBA more attractive to some. Indeed, the latest QS Top MBA Applicant Survey showed that 36 per cent of applicants chose their business school partly with the professional networks in mind.

“Students can theoretically make connections with individuals around the world through online forums, but it is simply not the same as being immersed in a campus environment,” says Zaitseva. Those seeking firm business friendships and networks, then, may want to go full-time.