The Most Expensive Online MBA Programs

by Marc Ethier on

USC’s Marshall School of Business offers an online MBA that is ranked No. 12 overall by U.S. News and World Report but that is the fourth-most expensive among the top 100

Call it the Hollywood advantage. USC’s Marshall School of Business knows how to produce an online MBA program, thanks in part to its proximity to La La Land.

Marshall’s online MBA has a big studio and multiple cameras. It has five instructional designers, and five more production staffers. Thanks to the work of a couple of former Disney technicians, its videos even feature animation. Like its peers at UNC Kenan-Flagler and Indiana Kelley, USC puts on a show — in some ways even more so.

That showbiz element partly accounts for the gaudy price tag of a Marshall online MBA degree: $92,702, the fourth-most expensive program among U.S. News and World Report’s top 100. But it’s worth it, says Sandra Chrystal, vice dean for online education and professor of clinical business communication at No. 12 Marshall. And all 88 of the school’s current students will agree, she says.

Chrystal has one word to describe the Marshall program, now in its third year and preparing to graduate its first cohort: “Quality,” she says. “We are right up there with programs that are really high-end programs.”

WHERE THE MONEY GOES

Sandra Chrystal, vice dean for online education and professor of clinical business communication at Marshall School of Business

If you’re paying top dollar for an online MBA, chances are most of the money is going to cover two chief expenses: faculty and production. If a school has full-time instructors dedicated to the online program, that’s going to raise the stakes, so to speak; if not, not. (See Mississippi State’s approach). And if a school that already has more than 20 faculty dedicated exclusively to its online program also hires Disney and other Hollywood veterans to spruce up its production values, that’s going to be reflected in the price tag, too.

“When we were building this, we looked at all of that, but most of all we didn’t design it with price in mind,” Sandra Chrystal says. “We sat down with some of our best faculty and we met with several focus groups comprised of different corporate people, and we asked the question, ‘What should students be able to do after they receive their MBA, when they walk out the door?’ And we really got some good feedback. Most programs are great and give students the fundamentals, but these employers were looking for skills in data analytics, visualization, and communication of that data analysis to all stakeholders.

“So we started out with those premises and we created five integrated courses, so there are multiple-faculty teams teaching each of those five courses, but in all five we have as part of the student learning that they have to do data analytics, they have to visualize the data and communicate it to stakeholders. That’s in all five courses, and that is unique. We felt we had to start with the quality of the program, and the curriculum, and then it would work out to be whatever it worked out to be for the number of units.”

COSTS FROM ONE END TO THE OTHER

The average cost of the 20 highest-priced online MBA programs in the U.S. News ranking is $76,694. Of those, 12 cost more than $70,000, and two, No. 4 Kenan-Flagler and No. 2 Carnegie Mellon Tepper, set their MBA candidates back more than $100,000 ($104,610 and $122,880, respectively). All but one of the 20 schools has per-credit-hour costs of more than $1,000: No. 16 Florida State ($750). The high end is Tepper at $1,920 per credit hour, with No. 61 Miami ($1,900) close behind, and Marshall ($1,778) third-most among the U.S. News top 100.

Compare all this to the average total cost for the 20 lowest-priced programs in the U.S. News ranking: $16,337. Sixteen of those schools cost less than $20,000; 10 have per-credit-hour costs of less than $500. (Eleven schools in the top 100 did not report any total cost data.)

It’s possible to have the best of both worlds, if Indiana Kelley is a guide. That school’s online program, ranked fourth overall by U.S. News, has a total price tag of $66,300, yet is very highly regarded in academic circles for the quality of its presentation and curriculum. Or look at two of USC’s rank-mates, Ball State University’s Miller College of Business and Wisconsin-Consortium: Both are tied with Marshall at No. 12, yet they carry a total cost of just $17,700 and $20,250, respectively. The top overall school in the ranking, Temple University Fox School of Business, costs a total of just $59,760.

THE ‘CADILLAC’ OF PROGRAMS

Kenan-Flagler’s Doug Shackelford

So what makes Kenan-Flagler the “Cadillac” of online MBA programs? As Dean Douglas Shackelford explains, the school doesn’t just put a camera in the back of a room and tell a professor to go about his class as he would in a face-to-face setting. Kenan-Flagler employs three cameras and “like a TV production crew” of eight people, Shackelford says, producing what he calls “a poor man’s version of ’60 Minutes.’

“It’s not a talking head. It’s much more documentary-style. If you can think of the most advanced technology and communications, that’s the kind of things we’re doing.” The students deserve no less, says Shackelford, who teaches a taxation course online. “To ask somebody to devote two and a half hours to study tax stuff — and with all the competing things out there these days that you can put on your laptop — it’s got to be really good.”

He mentions another factor that boosts Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA program, as it does for every program: “We are helped every day because online education is not as negatively perceived as it was when we started this thing in 2011. Harvard, MIT, some of the best brand names in education have extensive online programs now, and even if they’re not MBA programs and even if they’re doing it very differently from what we’re doing, if you speak to a student who has the ability to go to any MBA program in the world and say, ‘Have you considered our online program?’ they don’t look at you like, ‘You’ve got to be crazy.’ They now say, ‘Yeah, I should look into that.’”

HIGH IS HIGH AND LOW IS LOW, EXCEPT WHEN IT ISN’T

It’s easy to assume that cheaper schools are also lower-ranked, though Mississippi State, ranked No. 18 and costing the second-lowest of any top-100 school ($12,787), alone debunks that notion. The average rank of the 20 cheapest schools is 53.1 — in other words, in the middle of the pack, though that list includes such top-ranked schools as No. 10 Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, Nos. 12 (tie) Ball State and Wisconsin-Consortium.

Now look at the average rank of the most-expensive 20 schools: 23.7. Pretty good, right? There’s just one thing: That list includes Nos. 47, 61, and 78, and four more schools that are ranked 33 or higher.

How about the most popular program among the top 100, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management, which has more than 1,300 students? The cost to get an online MBA from Isenberg is $32,175, or $825 per credit hour, full- or part-time, in-state or out, making it something of a bargain — the fourth-cheapest school among the top 15, and considerably cheaper than USC Marshall. Yet interestingly, the schools share the No. 12 rank according to U.S. News.

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