Why the Part-time MBA has a Bright Future

Often undervalued, these flexible degrees are gaining in appeal as the job market tightens

The part-time MBA degree has traditionally been undervalued in business education, despite making a lot of sense. The full-time MBA degree receives all the attention, while part-time programs are less prestigious — even though the degree received by graduates is often the same.

Can and should that change?

The part-time MBA has a lot going for it. For one, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that business education has to offer more flexibility to students. And one of the unique benefits of doing a part-time versus a full-time MBA is that students don’t have to quit their jobs — and forgo their salaries — in order to go back to school.

“Not only does this have financial benefits, but as working professionals, they can apply what they are learning in real-time, further accelerating the value of their degree,” says Cindy McCauley, executive director of online masters programs at Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business.

At the same time, as the job market is running hot, that has boosted the appeal of part-time MBA programs because they lower the opportunity cost of not working. “The whole point of an MBA is to enhance your career and if it’s already going well, why leave it?” asks McCauley. 

Amid economic uncertainty, part-time MBAs retain appeal

Even as the economy edges closer towards a recession, she says the part-time MBA can retain its appeal to students. “MBA students are smart and know they need to build their skills for a time when the job market isn’t nearly as robust,” she explains. “A part-time program is the perfect way to stay in the current market while investing in themselves for the future.”

What is more, corporations also need ways to attract and retain their most talented staff in the tight labor market. And a part-time MBA can increase staying power inside the organization. “Today’s employees want to work for organizations who will invest in their future,” says McCauley. “Companies would be smart to make it easier for employees to pursue MBAs — not only with tuition remission but with flexible work schedules, mentoring programs and clear paths to promotion after graduation.”

She adds: “People pursue an MBA to improve their career prospects — employers who make this possible in their current job will not only retain these employees, they will have a skilled workforce to grow their business.”

So why has the part-time MBA been under-loved in business education? McCauley says most schools focus on the full-time program because that has been the primary driver of rankings and, as a result, the reputation of the school.

Another problem is the geography. “It’s challenging for part-time programs to complete in a similar way since they tend to be more regional,” she says. “However, with the addition of more flexible formats — online, weekend and in-between — it’s now easier for students to compare programs outside of their own geographic area. This will broaden their reach and, most likely, the attention they receive — and deserve.”

The part-time MBA can also be overshadowed by the executive MBA (EMBA), which has become a premium brand in its own right. “You could argue that the EMBA has an advantage over the part-time MBA because, in contrast to the latter, it has its own international rankings, which often inform decisions on where and how to invest in your education and career,” says Kai Stenzel, chief market officer at Mannheim Business School in Germany. “This program is less known on the international market.”

In addition, some of the most prestigious business schools only teach the MBA in a two-year full-time format, such as Harvard and Stanford. “Some schools do not give the program the same attention as their full-time MBA or EMBA programs,” adds Stenzel.

Part-time programs require discipline

Another issue he flags is that, doing an MBA on top of one’s personal and professional obligations requires a huge amount of discipline and structure—though he says participants learn to juggle multiple tasks, which is a learning process and an achievement in itself. Still, Stenzel says most corporations struggle to give employees enough time off to do a part-time MBA, since they need their full commitment. “Although companies all need to retain and find talent, there has been no boost in part-time MBAs so far,” he states.

A further challenge for part-time programs is attracting a more diverse intake of students, especially by gender. Stenzel says: “We don’t have an equal gender ratio, since potential female participants are often at that stage of their life where starting a family is more important. Having to juggle work and family is already tough for women, and adding an MBA on top of that is often not an option.”

Furthermore, most part-time MBA students live and work within commuting distance of their business school, so there is usually less international diversity than in full-time programs.

But for a growing number of working professionals, the appeal of the part-time MBA — retaining earnings, career progression and greater flexibility — is hard to ignore. At Mannheim, the part-time MBA is as popular as the full-time version, and candidates have to meet high standards to be admitted to the program.

Stenzel is confident that the part-time course has a valid place in the portfolio. “In future, it may even surpass the full-time MBA,” he predicts.

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