Traditionally, the way to the corner office went through a prestigious MBA programme. With remote work becoming more common, is that changing?
An MBA has long been seen as one of the best ways to get ahead in business, with the networking opportunities offered by top schools valued as much as their course offerings.
Traditionally, applicants have had to commit to two years or more and move to a new city or even a new country to earn the coveted degree. But today, even some of the most prestigious programmes now offer online alternatives – a move accelerated by Covid-19.
MBAs are valued by business professionals for their versatility, detailed curriculum and practical application. Coursework covers all aspects of business administration – from accounting and finance, to marketing, strategy and leadership skills.
Many leading business schools across the world initially resisted a move towards online learning. As elsewhere in academia, some felt that remote learning was not as valuable as an in-person educational experience – particularly in regard to the practical exercises MBA programmes are known for.
But these perceptions have changed alongside teaching methods and attitudes to flexible working. Even prior to Covid-19, many young professionals were looking for more affordable and flexible options. Immigration issues and pandemic-related travel bans have only made online learning even more desirable.
MBA programmes in the US have seen a decline in applications in recent years, leading some providers to close their residential programmes down completely, says Anthony D. Wilbon, dean of Howard University School of Business in Washington, DC.
He believes that a primary reason for this is that the traditional model of professionals quitting their jobs and moving to a campus for two years – with the assumption they’d then be able to get back into the job market and earn a significant salary – is no longer viable.
“With the traditional residency models some schools are having difficulty convincing business professionals to attend full-time courses on campus. People just weren’t willing to do that anymore,” he says. Online programmes then became more popular, and that trend accelerated because applicants no longer had to disrupt their career.
Instead, they could get an MBA from a reputable university while still earning a wage – opening up the opportunity for study to people who may have previously found such a move inaccessible, including women or those wanting to study abroad.
Barbara Coward, an MBA admissions consultant and industry analyst, adds that the wider market has also changed. Two decades ago, companies would pay at least some of the costs for an executive earning an MBA, but today many employees are footing the bill themselves.
She observes that applicants are also getting younger, with students in their final years of an undergraduate degree now applying for deferred MBA schemes. This trend also has benefits for schools, as they attract more non-traditional applicants such as arts graduates, while keeping them in the university pipeline and also improving diversity.
Covid-19 may have forced even the most prestigious MBA programmes online temporarily, but some are likely to remain campus-based post-pandemic.
The – often unjustified – stigma attached to online learning and the feeling from some students that they’re missing something without the residential experience is likely to drive demand for campus-based MBAs for some time yet.
Indeed, UK-based Warwick Business School (WBS) has seen an increase in applications for both its distance-learning and full-time MBA programmes. This year the school saw a 30% rise in numbers for its remote cohort starting in January compared to last year, and applications are also up by 20% for its September campus-based intake.
While some applicants may have concerns that online courses cannot live up to the practical and networking elements of their residential rivals, many argue that this is not the case – particularly in the post-pandemic workplace where Zoom meetings are now mainstream.
“A distance-learning MBA also allows people to connect with other students all over the world, to understand the different cultures in business and make contacts they never have otherwise,” says John Colley, associate dean and professor of practice at WBS.
Such courses also utilise online communication and leadership skills that have proven increasingly important during Covid-19 and are likely to continue being so in years to come.
“Skills in working remotely, leading and working with teams online will be much sought after by organisations,” he says, adding that putting lectures online can free up time for more innovative learning such as acting out case studies.
Indeed, one of the big benefits of MBAs is developing soft skills such as written and oral communication, empathy and self-awareness, says Coward. “You’ve got to know finance and you’ve got to know what a balance sheet is, but the trickier thing is influencing and leading people, and having soft skills.”
Looking ahead, Wilbon expects to see more collaboration across subjects. For example, Howard already runs joint MBA courses with the schools of law, medicine, social work and divinity. “You’re going to see a lot more of these joint programmes which allow cross-disciplinary collaboration – the business school and other disciplines,” he says.
“People are more interested, I think, in gaining knowledge about more than one focused discipline and how they can apply that knowledge in a variety of very broad and selected ways to addressing the more complicated solutions that they’ll face when they graduate.”
One thing that does seem certain is that the growing trend of remote learning has only been accelerated by Covid-19 and the combination of online and offline working will likely be the formula for the future across education and business alike.
“The future will be hybrid,” says Coward. As such, distance-learning MBA programmes may well prove the ideal training place for business leaders of the future.