Why US MBA candidates are choosing to study online

Why US MBA candidates are choosing to study online

By Craig OCallaghan

Updated April 15, 2023 Updated April 15
  • 52 percent of admissions officers in North America expect domestic MBA applications to fall
  • Online MBA programmes - particularly those in Europe - proving to be a more attractive alternative
  • Candidates preferring to study while they work, with less incentive to invest in an MBA to accelerate career progression

US MBA applicants are increasingly choosing alternatives to a domestic full-time MBA programme, according to a recent QS survey. 

Assistant Professor James Berry, Director of UCL's Online MBA, explains the changes he’s seen in the applicant pool, with 12 percent of their online MBA cohort now studying remotely from the US. 

He said: “We only launched our online MBA in October 2019 and it has grown from two North American students in the first cohort to eight studying the programme currently, out of a total of 65 students.  

“Studying in Europe compared to the US is certainly less expensive. Being able to gain a European qualification online also means that there’s no need to quit your job and invest in travel, living costs and accommodation alongside your tuition fees. 

Pull factors: Why an online MBA? 

Dr Berry recognises that the pandemic has been an influencing factor on changing attitudes towards online learning in general: “The pandemic has allowed us to work and interact differently so our expectations of what is possible remotely have changed. There has been a proliferation of online educational opportunities, some of high quality and some of more dubious quality.  

“What remains unique about an MBA from a leading business school is the interactive learning aspect. What I’ve not seen from micro-credentials is a recreation of this learning environment, where you learn both from faculty and from each other. The depth and value of the MBA is the interactive classroom experience.” 

Push factors: Why are domestic MBA applications in North America falling? 

Over half of business school admissions officers in North America expect a fall in domestic MBA applications over the next 12 months. In our most recent survey of admissions officers working in graduate management education programmes, 52 percent of North American respondents forecast that domestic applications will be slightly lower (30 percent) or much lower (22 percent) in 2022.  

The downturn is also reflected in the fall in GMAT tests taken domestically in the US. A total of 79,746 GMAT exams were taken by citizens of the USA in 2017, compared to 38,509 in 2021. 

Nunzio Quacquarelli, founder and CEO of QS Quacquarelli Symonds, said: “There has been a lot of discussion about the ‘great resignation’ in the US. It’s likely that what we’re seeing here is that the buoyancy in job vacancies is presenting sufficient opportunities for career mobility for aspiring managers, so there is less of an incentive to invest in an MBA to develop their skills and accelerate their career progression.  

“What we’re likely to be seeing here is that potential MBA candidates in North America are currently thinking ‘job-first’ and not considering taking time out of their careers to study.

"In my experience, MBA demand is counter cyclical. With interest rates rising and market volatility, this situation could change quickly and MBA demand for full-time MBA studies in 2023 could see a significant uplift."

With domestic applications falling, US business schools can at least take comfort from the fact international applications are on the rise. 91 percent of North American admissions officers expect international applications to be the same or slightly higher.  

It is possible that this represents a lag in applications which were delayed or deferred as a result of restrictions and health concerns during the pandemic, rather than a huge upsurge. However, it shows that an MBA from a leading business school remains a gold standard in global graduate management education. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This article was originally published in February 2022 . It was last updated in April 2023

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As editor of TopUniversities.com, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.