Why Interest In Part-Time MBA Programs Is Sagging

The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management


The Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis

The Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis

The take: Drawing from the many multinational corporations with headquarters in its backyard in Minneapolis, Carlson’s part-time program has long been among the best of breed. Still, applications have been dropping for the past few years, according to Phil Miller, assistant dean of MBA programs. When asked about the future of part-time MBA programs, Miller says it’s tough to tell. “Heavy sigh. We keep hoping to find a bottom. I would say this is it, but this year we continue to be down from last year, and last year we’re down from the year before,” he points out.

Still, it’s not all bad news. Miller points out that applications to Carlson’s full-time MBA program have been up more than 25% for the last two consecutive years. In other words, there’s still demand for business education, but the market is simply fragmenting, he says. Part-time offerings are losing ground to a proliferation of business master’s programs and hybrid formats that blend online and on-campus classes.

Miller compares the situation to football pushing baseball from the No. 1 spot in American sports. “Baseball is still thriving and healthy, it’s just not the national pastime anymore – football is…There’s not something that’s replacing baseball, sports are just fragmenting into various other offerings.” He speculates that rising student debt and waning employer reimbursement are also contributing to declining interest in part-time MBA programs.

The response: Carlson has countered this wave of fragmentation with value-add features like career services and campus life for part-time students hungry for a traditional MBA experience. The business school has also expanded its online options for employed students who are more interested in keeping their careers than hanging out on the quad. After a successful pilot, Carlson will offer one section of all their core courses as well as five elective courses online beginning next fall.

The B-school also launched an MS in analytics this year. “We all used to be able to offer essentially the same vanilla product, and now you can’t. Now you have to be much more tailored and targeted,” Miller says. “It’s not the case that you can just have one thing that makes everyone happy.”

Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business


Indiana's Kelley School of Business is ranked 21st among the best B-schools in the U.S. by Poets&Quants.

The take: Applications to Kelley’s part-time program have declined significantly, but Evening MBA Director Gordon McCurdy says it will fix itself in just a year. The Kelley full-time and part-time MBA programs are advertised as equal – the same program with the same professors and the same quality. The difference, according to McCurdy, is the programs target different demographics, with part-time students often being older, and this difference can explain the part-time downturn.

“I can tell you exactly what’s going on,” he said. “Nationally we saw an uptick in the Evening MBA when 2008 hit and the economy tanked. Students were afraid to go to full-time programs, so they moved into part-time. Now that the economy is picking up, that demographic of students is going back into full-time programs, and there’s a decline in the part-time.”

He also suggested that the new Integrated Reasoning GMAT section may have contributed to fewer applications this past year, as 2013 saw a 22% decrease in the number of people taking the exam in Indiana. “They panic a little bit, so some of the lag is people not taking the GMAT. We expect to see both issues bounce back.”

The response: In the meantime though, McCurdy says the Kelley part-time program has definitely been affected. “Last year we raised the number of applicants, and we increased the quality of the program. But this year we won’t see quite as big a positive impact. We’re hitting a bit of a hitch right now, but we’ve been paying attention to the fundamentals – our relationships with our students, alumni, employers – and those are paying off. We’re going to see our quality go up and our applicants go up too.”

The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business



The take: According to George Andrews, associate dean for Evening and Weekend MBAs at Booth, part-time MBA programs have been losing popularity since 2009, applications across the country are down, and GMAT test takers identifying with part-time programs have hit a 15-year low. He narrowed the causes down to two: the economic downturn in 2008 and the many college graduates who were unable to find ideal jobs. Now that they’re older and ready to think about getting an MBA, Andrews says their desire to take on a part-time program in order to keep these un-ideal jobs is very low. “They’re much more interested in quitting and getting a full-time MBA,” Andrews said.

He also brought up the disappearance of tuition reimbursement, saying that Booth’s part-time program used to get 20 to 25 students per academic quarter who were offered full reimbursement by large companies. “They went from full tuition reimbursement to offering $5,000 per academic year, which basically covers one course,” Andrews said. “So you have these students who, in the past, may have said: “Okay, maybe it’s not the company I want to be at, but they’re covering my education, so it’s worth staying. Now they’re at a company that they might not necessarily want to be employed at, and there’s no tuition reimbursement. It’s just a recipe for people to go full time. So we see that our full-time applications are up, and our part-time applications are down.”

The Booth acceptance rate is low enough that they have been able to fill classes regardless of dropping applications. However, Andrews said that there are other local institutions that often admit students who were dropped off the Booth waitlist. He believes that as Booth reaches deeper into its waitlist, these other places may suffer.

The response: Andrews said that he has seen a lot of changes in the part-time world as other institutions get creative trying to increase the part-time MBA’s ROI. These changes include shortening the degree, introducing accelerated programs, and providing scholarships, which are usually offered to full-time students. “We’re not going to do that,” he said. “But if this market continues, then we would have to start thinking about how to attract more students.”

He expressed worry that decisions to shorten part-time programs will influence the long-term perception of the MBA, saying that it’s too early to tell if recruiters will view students who spent less time in an MBA program as equal to a student who completes a full program. Other options that may make the part-time MBA more affordable include having students take some courses online in order to supplement what they learn in class. “I think we’re going to see schools getting creative about how to raise the ROI and make an MBA less expensive, and I think technology is going to play a large part in that.”

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