MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

Half of all students would be willing to see at least 20% of their coursework go online in exchange for some level of discount.

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning
Harvard Business School students cheer as their MBA degrees are conferred during commencement ceremonies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photographer: Neal Hamberg / Bloomberg News)

The coronavirus pandemic led to an extraordinary and almost overnight shift to online learning at MBA programs. Because of the overwhelming impact on business school education, this year Bloomberg Businessweek chose not to rank MBA programs. Instead, we surveyed 3,532 first- and second-year students from 95 schools around the world to understand what was working in the now-online programs—and where students felt shortchanged.

Half of all students would be willing to see at least 20% of their coursework go online in exchange for some level of tuition discount. Students at more expensive schools were less likely to say that their online education was worth the tuition.

The survey, conducted from May to early August, included top-ranked schools like Stanford, Dartmouth, Harvard, IMD, Insead, and Ceibs—and a full range of schools from the Businessweek 2019-20 MBA ranking. Since this isn’t a ranking, and the pandemic hit schools in different ways at different times, we decided not to publish data on individual programs. (Read more on how we conducted the survey in our methodology.) 

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

One of the more surprising results was that 49% of MBA students said they’d accept some permanent shift to online coursework if it came with tuition cuts. Students were able to submit open-ended comments with their survey to describe their experience. Many students mentioned the value of saving precious in-person class time for deep, analytical discussions while the more routine learning of core material could be shifted online.

A recent grad from a top-ranked school in the Northeast remarked:

“Hybrid instruction is nothing new—those in higher ed have been talking about ‘flipped’ classrooms for years—but the abrupt shift to online education should underscore how easily one-way lectures can be delivered online. Schools should consider using this hybrid approach permanently, saving in-person instruction for higher-value interactive approaches.”

That said, 90% of survey takers would not want to see more than a 40% shift to online. And 42% of students said they wanted only traditional, in-person teaching. A student at an Ivy League B-school declared his opposition to any shift online.

“Charging full tuition for Zoom-only classes is complete highway robbery.”

Students were asked what portion of their coursework—in increments of 20%—should go permanently online and what tuition reduction would be fair as a result of this shift. Students from top-ranked schools objected most to any permanent shift to virtual learning, according to an analysis that broke the 95 schools in our survey into three groups based on their 2019-20 Businessweek ranking. At schools ranked globally Nos. 1-25, 33% wouldn’t accept any change. That drops to 24% at schools ranked 26-75 and 17% at schools ranked 76 and below.

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

However, according to Doug Shackelford, dean of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, the formula isn’t as simple as assuming more online education equals lower tuition. Rather, quality is the determining factor on price, much like any other product.

“What I haven’t figured out how to do,” he said, “is how to give you a low-cost, low-tuition, high-quality experience,” whether online or in person. “I’d love to say, ‘Look, we’re going to cut our tuition in half, or maybe by one third or a quarter,’” but Shackelford insisted the reality is that “great faculty, great experiences, great student support, great services, great career placement people, all these sorts of things—they’re high-cost inputs, whatever the delivery.”

Kenan-Flagler’s pricing model appears to reflect this philosophy. The current tuition for out-of-state students completing the traditional two-year, in-person MBA is $132,540, while students enrolled in its decade-old online MBA program pay almost as much—$125,589.

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

Surprisingly, almost 1 in 10 would favor at least a 20% shift online with no tuition discount, and about 7% of students even said at least 80% of their classwork should shift permanently online, as long as there were tuition cuts.

Kayla Smith, a dual MD/MBA candidate at Howard University, was among those favoring a large shift. She said in a phone interview that virtual classes eliminated her commute to campus and improved class efficiency. “A lot of things like announcements and settling down the classroom” can waste class time. “With online it’s mostly easier to transition right to the point.” Despite a software licensing hiccup on her school’s part that interfered with completing a yearend project for her management class, overall she felt she learned as much online as she would have in person. In fact, Smith, 28, who plans to open a community-based practice once she completes the second half of her MD program, would support having some of her medical classes taught online—where feasible. “Years 3 and 4 are in the hospital. Online can’t replace a clinical.”

Why not then 100% virtual? Even knowing what she knows now, Smith would still have enrolled in Howard’s traditional MBA program as opposed to its online offering for the common reason many other students cited—networking. “I like going on campus, communicating with my peers, and collaborating on group projects.” A strictly online education, she added, can limit career prospects. “It’s more holistic when you get to go on campus in person and engage face-to-face with different directors of different job opportunities.”

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

Still, students saw many benefits of online learning. One in eight respondents to our survey said they’d like to see some form of asynchronous learning—recorded lectures or other class content available for viewing either before or after in-person instruction—persist after the pandemic. According to one student, this feature helped with the more difficult classes in the curriculum, on “topics that may be more complex to understand in a live environment.” Another noted its potential as a study aid. “I found it very helpful to return to old lectures when studying for exams,” said a student at a school in the South.

Even though 74% of students responded either “very negatively” or “somewhat negatively” when asked how the pandemic affected their educational experience, they still awarded high marks to their professors for their remote-teaching efforts.

In a phone interview, Joseph Zuckerman, class of 2021 at Maryland’s Smith School of Business, who plans to pursue a career in marketing, lauded his professors’ ability to quickly make the switch to online. “They did incredible work given the short timeline to prepare to change curriculums that they’ve been delivering for so many years.” He also commended his instructors’ use of technology to deliver the coursework, which he found most effective for smaller classes. “I was really impressed with the way they used the features of Zoom: breakout rooms to simulate team activity and gallery view to mimic in-class atmosphere like the ability to raise your hand to get called on.”

Less tech-savvy professors, however, may have been caught off guard. In a phone interview, Greg Burns, 28 and a second-year student at NYU’s Stern School of Business, noted some professors’ inexperience delivering content on a videoconference. “My marketing professor was uncomfortable the first two weeks on Zoom. It’s unfortunate because he’s one of the best professors I had.” Yet as classes resumed this fall, Burns, a New York City transplant who intends to pursue a career in real estate development, observed a significant improvement in professor preparation on account of their use of teaching assistants. “TAs effectively have become tech advisers. They’re tech support.”

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

As much as professors were praised for their ability to adapt given the circumstances, students generally felt less positive about the classroom experience from their own side of the screen. Lee Axelrod has just begun her second year at Stern, where some face-to-face classes have resumed. Already she has noticed a stark difference between these classes and her online courses from last spring. “What I’ve found since coming back in the fall is that I’m a lot more focused for my in-person classes, and the time goes by a lot faster. It’s just a very engaging setting,” she said in an interview. Axelrod noted that taking long classes on Zoom can tempt students into doing other work on the side. “I think people are really prone to multitasking, and even if you have really great willpower, three hours is a long time.”

Lynn Wu, a recent graduate of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, had similar thoughts about students’ abilities to engage, though she believed some of this may have been self-inflicted. She noticed that after a few weeks of online classes, students began turning off their video connections in greater numbers. “If you’re not showing your video, I think there’s less reason for you to engage or to participate when the professor asks a question,” she said.

Asked if they felt the cost of their education was worth it even after the changes required by the pandemic, half said no. Students from the most expensive schools, those that charge more than $70,000 a year in tuition and other mandatory fees, felt strongest that their return on investment in what became online learning wasn’t worth it. The gap generally intensified proportionally with tuition: Students who paid less were much more satisfied.

MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course by Shift to Online Learning

A student at a top-five school spoke about the irony of his school’s administrators defending their decision not to offer tuition discounts because the school’s costs remained the same: “For a school that teaches us to set prices based on value and not on cost, it was an ineffective argument.”

But Shackelford, Kenan-Flagler’s dean, surveyed companies when he launched its online program and believes the market has spoken when it comes to the value of remote vs. in-person education. “What we found across the board was, companies said, ‘If the people can do the work, we don’t care how they learned.’”

Bill Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, said that there’s already an online market for what he called the “high-volume, low-cost MBA path” among some schools, and predicted that they’ll continue to push this business model in the years ahead. But he also believes there will still be room for what he described as “lower-volume, high-touch online programs that are every bit as expensive as the face-to-face programs.” Still, schools in this latter group will feel pressure to truly distinguish themselves so that their programs “do not feel like a commoditized MBA experience,” he said.

Luis Vives, an associate professor and the deputy dean of the MBA program at Esade in Barcelona, agrees with this view—and notes that evolution is inevitable for successful MBA programs. “The future is clearly hybrid,” he said. But he stressed that bigger forces were at play. “I think what technology will do [to business schools] is eventually something similar to what happened in many value chains,” he said, referring to previously integrated value chains that became fragmented. Vives believes the MBA will be effectively accumulated through a series of “micro-degrees,” the market for which “will eventually break the model of a single school.” He cited Google’s foray into professional certification as an example of how current schools will need to compete by offering their own series of micro-degrees or by forming partnerships with other schools to form an MBA-equivalent package.

It appears that business school administrators could be forced to navigate a rocky transition over the next few years as students and companies wrestle with the idea of the true value of a rapidly changing MBA degree. Business schools, their prospective students, and those students’ future employers will all be reacting to each other’s moves while a new market for the MBA sorts itself out. “As happens in many other industries,” said Vives, “with innovation and with evolution some new players emerge, and some traditional players will disappear.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.