Everyone wants to save a buck. The online MBA may be the route taken by established professionals more than young students one step removed from undergrad, but even experienced hands don’t want to tap their bulging bank accounts more than they have to. In the matter of getting a quality degree from a respected institution, anyone with the academic chops can spend more than $100,000 for a two- to three-year experience at a top school, but if dollars are a determining factor, there’s a long list of schools that won’t mean a second mortgage, and where quality isn’t sacrificed.
According to U.S. News and World Report‘s 2017 ranking of online MBA programs, at the top of that list, among the top 100 ranked schools, is No. 86 Sam Houston State University, which boasts an incredibly low reported total tuition cost of just $10,278 — more than $2,000 cheaper than the next-cheapest school, No. 100 Fort Hays State University ($12,455). Sam Houston’s 300 enrolled MBA candidates pay just $285 per credit hour for a program with a 78% acceptance rate. Also appealing for many applicants: No essay is required, and while they must take the GMAT, the program’s average score is a low 527, no major hurdle to admission.
On the other hand, for a huge leap up the rankings all you have to do is look to the next school on the money list, No. 18 Mississippi State University, which charges a base cost of only $12,787 ($426 per credit hour). The MSU online MBA program, currently home to 249 students, is not much more selective than Sam Houston, with an acceptance rate of 71% and average GMAT score of 580 — but the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business-accredited, 30-hour program features a smaller average class size (25 to 29), a higher student retention rate (86% to 76%), and a higher three-year graduation rate (48% to 34%).
So how does a popular, well-regarded program like Mississippi State’s manage to charge so little? “We are located in Mississippi, so when we started pricing this, we did look around at our market,” Cindy Smith, director of distance learning at MSU, says of the Starkville, Mississippi-based school. “We don’t have to hire any outside faculty, and we were able to start this program over 10 years ago with our core faculty who were teaching in the on-campus program. And by doing that we’re not adding any cost. We’ve never added additional faculty, and that’s where programs tend to run into high costs.”
FOR THOSE WITHOUT BOTTOMLESS BANK ACCOUNTS, SOME OPTIONS
The average total cost for the 20 lowest-priced online MBA programs in the U.S. News ranking is $16,337. (Important note: The U.S. News “total cost” figures often do not include fees, which can be considerable; more below on how that affected one school in particular.) 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.) Compare that to the average cost of the 20 highest-priced programs: $76,694. Of those, 12 cost more than $70,000, and two, the aforementioned UNC Kenan-Flagler and Carnegie Mellon, set their MBA candidates back more than $100,000 ($104,610 and $122,880, respectively).
It’s easy to assume that the cheaper schools are also the lower-ranked, though Mississippi State 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, No. 12 (tie) Ball State University Miller College of Business, and No. 12 (tie) Wisconsin-Consortium. Now let’s look at the average rank of the most-costly 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. Interestingly, another No. 12, USC’s Marshall School of Business, is also on the most-expensive list, with a total price tag of $92,702; its two rank-mates, Ball State and Wisconsin, cost just $17,700 and $20,250, respectively.
Given the choice and a bottomless bank account, few would probably trade a Marshall MBA for one from Ball State or Wisconsin-Consortium, and that’s no knock on either program. But not everyone has limitless financial resources, and the three tied schools have more than a few things in common: All are AACSB-accredited, all have student populations that are 100% or nearly 100% employed, and all are highly ranked in student engagement, selectivity, and peer reputation. Looking for more bang for your buck? Ball State, Wisconsin-Consortium, or the other 12th-place program, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — one of the most popular programs in the U.S. News top 100, and no budget-breaker at $32,175 — might be worth a look.
DOWN SOUTH, KEEPING COSTS DOWN
Mississippi State, which climbed to No. 18 from No. 22 last year, wants you to take a look in their direction, too. Cindy Smith tells Poets&Quants that besides the school’s consistent faculty approach — only full-time, tenured faculty are featured in the online program — MSU has always been consistent in another way as well: its no-frills production values.
“We do not make massive investments in a big room with video recorders and equipment and all of that,” Smith says. “Our faculty pretty much just use lecture-capture software that allows them to add audio onto a PowerPoint or Excel file. We do some videos in a classroom, but we aren’t heavily invested in equipment.
“We’re not trendy, we’re not chasing the latest shiny object. We’re just a general MBA program that is rigorous. We don’t actually spend a lot for marketing, either.”
MSU has benefited from entering the market early, Smith says: Its first online program was launched in 1998, “back when we used interactive video classrooms,” before the school transitioned the program to its current state.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A MISSISSIPPI STATE ONLINE MBA
MSU’s online MBA program requires applicants to complete the GMAT or GRE and provide transcripts showing a strong undergraduate GPA. Applicants also must complete a short essay and provide a resume and three letters of reference.
MSU’s courses emphasize management, marketing, finance, economics, business information systems, and quantitative analysis. Students can take up to eight years to finish, though typically they take two. No campus visits are required. Smith says there hasn’t been a curricular overhaul in several years, though some “tweaks” were done a few years ago when the school dropped its 1- and 2-credit courses in favor of having a strictly 3-credit slate.
“We just wanted to make sure the students were getting more content, so we removed those electives from the program and focused on the core,” Smith says. That core includes a slate of “foundation courses to make sure if you don’t have an undergrad degree in business or you didn’t do so well in your classes, that you’re prepared for the program,” she says. That means courses in accounting, finance, statistics, management, and other basics.
Next comes the true core: Leadership Skills, Strategic Marketing Management, Economics for Managers, Corporate Finance, Financial & Accounting Report Analysis, Management Information Technology & Systems, Law, Ethics, and Dispute Resolution, Quantitative Analysis & Business Research, and finally the capstone course, Strategic Business Consulting, in which teams provide clients — inventors, entrepreneurs, restaurants, county and city government, chambers of commerce, and other university divisions — the answers to business problems.
“No fancy titles,” Smith says. “The title of the class just says what it is.”
‘VERY COMPETITIVELY PRICED’
Of the 30 credit hours in the program, just 3 — one course — are set aside for an elective. A separate MBA program, the MBA in product management, is 36 credit hours; geared toward the many engineers who graduated from MSU and who need the general MBA degree to prepare them to move up in their companies to management level positions, it’s much the same minus the elective and plus 9 credit hours of industrial engineering courses. The school also prides itself on its offerings for veterans: The school’s G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Center for America’s Veterans makes it a national leader in providing comprehensive support for current and former military, Smith says.
Now, about those fees. The total cost for the Mississippi State online MBA is listed by U.S. News as $12,787, but Smith points out that that is just the cost of tuition; the school adds a “distance and technology fee” that bumps the price up to $21,007 (or $24,768 for the MBA in product management). That’s still low enough to land in the top 20 for cheap programs, but it’s a difference of more than $7,000 — not exactly spare change for our hypothetical penny-pinching prospective MBA.
“Some of these sites that do surveys don’t give you an opportunity to explain,” Smith says. “They offer ‘in-state,’ ‘out-of-state,’ ‘full-time,’ ‘part-time,’ but they don’t sometimes clarify the fees.
“But if you look at how we rank on some of those different criteria, we’re still very competitively priced.”
THE PERSONAL TOUCH
Despite its competitive price, the Mississippi State online MBA student body has not drawn a lot of interest from candidates with diverse backgrounds. Just 1% of the program’s students are international, while 12% are minorities. The gender breakdown is pretty lopsided, too: 77.9% of students are male. Eleven of the program’s 249 enrollees are veterans.
But on the customer service front, Smith says, MSU must be doing something right. In exit surveys given to graduating classes, students overwhelmingly agree that they made the right decision to attend MSU, she says, and that they would recommend MSU to a friend.
“Our students are very happy with our customer service,” Smith says. “We end up with a lot of students who apply here just because we are quick to respond to them. They email us and we respond the same day. We are here to instantly assist in getting registered and solving problems as they work their way through the program, and they appreciate that. That really is, I think, the best thing we do — our personal touch. We are a very small operation. There’s me and an assistant, and we deal directly with the students, and I think that makes a difference.”