Reaching the Evolving MBA Audience

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Monday, April 24, 2023
By Academic Partnerships
Photo by iStock/AndreyPopov
Through public-private collaborations, business schools can take their MBA programs online without overtaxing their faculty and their budgets.

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  • In the wake of the pandemic, more students are choosing online MBA programs because these programs offer flexibility and affordability.
  • Students also are looking for programs that provide access to emerging technologies that prepare them to work remotely and manage digitalized processes.
  • When a business school collaborates with a program facilitator to launch an online MBA, academic leaders can focus on students while the partner handles the business processes.

Advanced degrees remain in high demand for aspiring business professionals who desire progression in their careers. The MBA is a bellwether in this market, reflecting continuing interest from both students and employers. In particular, according to AACSB data, online MBA programs have enjoyed a surge in enrollments since the onset of COVID-19.

The basic motivations that drive students to earn MBAs—whether through on-campus, hybrid, or online offerings—are not surprising. According to Harvard Business Review, students choose such programs because they want to hone both their technical and soft management skills, increase their salary potential, follow more rewarding career trajectories, prepare for career changes, and connect with mentors and peers.

Business schools do a good job of helping their students develop effective communication skills, strategic and systems skills, and the ability to handle a complex global business environment.

Employers also see the value of MBA programs, which have had a formative influence on global business practice. According to the 2022 Corporate Recruiters Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council, corporate recruiters believe business schools do a good job of helping their students develop effective communication skills, strategic and systems skills, a knowledge of media communications, and the ability to handle a complex global business environment, among other skill sets.

Trends in Online Enrollment

The growing popularity of online MBA programs can be attributed in part to post-pandemic aftershocks that led to shifts in the way such programs are perceived. Both universities and students confirm that online programs are more cost-effective and provide easier access to education than in-person options.

But that’s scarcely the whole story. Students themselves are becoming more discriminating in what they expect from their education and how much they think it should cost. During the pandemic, immense publicity was generated in the U.S. by federal student loan debt relief measures and discussions of loan forgiveness. This publicity cast a spotlight on higher education financing and highlighted the fact that students are experiencing creeping loan aversion and continued concerns about education debt. Because online MBAs cost about 25 percent less than on-campus programs, their relative affordability makes them a viable alternative to traditional in-person programs.

Both universities and students confirm that online programs are more cost-effective and provide easier access to education than in-person options.

In addition to focusing on cost, many nontraditional students, particularly working adults, may weigh other factors when deciding whether to choose in-person or online MBAs. These considerations include flexibility, time to completion, quality of instruction, and accreditation status. Students also might look for programs that offer opportunities for global exposure, interactions with peers, and access to emerging technologies.

That last consideration is becoming especially important, as more students prioritize access to and instruction in technology tools. They recognize that “the future of work has already arrived” in the form of remote work and rapidly digitalized working processes. The technological disruption of the workforce has led to a widespread need for reskilling, which many students hope to achieve in their MBA programs.

A Case Study on Collaboration

Changing student needs are set against a backdrop of challenging macroeconomic trends. In such a volatile environment, how can universities, especially regional institutions, adapt quickly and nimbly? How can they and their business schools serve the needs of the marketplace without overly taxing their budgets and their faculty? How can they do all this while preserving academic rigor and brand integrity?

It takes a village. Or, in the case of Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, it takes a private-public partnership that also has an international component.

When the leaders of Carleton’s Sprott School of Business decided to create an online version of their established on-campus MBA program, they started with a clear-cut vision. Their goal was to make the AACSB-accredited program more accessible to nontraditional students. They were intent on checking all the boxes in providing online students with five essential elements:

  • A high-quality, technology-rich, and engaging experience at a reasonable cost.
  • A general MBA and high-demand specializations consistent with career development.
  • Workforce-relevant learnings drawn from the business school’s connections with area employers and business leaders.
  • Faculty adept at teaching online.
  • Increased opportunities for enrollment during the academic year.

To accomplish these goals, Sprott needed an experienced partner who could manage the business processes of launching an online MBA while allowing the school to focus on students. Sprott found the support it needed in Academic Partnerships (AP), a U.S. online program facilitator and a member of AACSB’s Business Education Alliance.

Embarking on such a private-public partnership, particularly with a U.S. company, was a bold move for Sprott, as working with outside companies to help expedite university growth is uncommon in Canada. While university alliances are unusual there, collaborations between universities and private education providers are surging across the globe. Such partnerships now number 2,500 and are continuing to grow.

In the partnership with the Sprott School, AP’s role encompassed a broad range of integrated services. These included assessing the marketplace, planning and executing strategic marketing designed to attract prospective students, guiding faculty in preparing their curricula for online delivery, providing support for student enrollment and retention, and managing change.
Collaborating with an experienced private provider such as AP decreased Sprott’s upfront risks in rolling out its online MBA and enhanced the new program’s success. In less than a year, Sprott has recruited nearly 350 students into its online MBA program, far exceeding the business school’s expectations. The success of this program has led the university to consider offering additional programs online.

For more information, see the case study about Carleton University or contact Academic Partnerships.

Academic Partnerships
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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