The Financial Times reported a 54% increase in online MBA offerings from 2012-2016. The format is clearly popular, but what are employers' thoughts on online degrees? Distance learning has dealt with its share of skepticism in the past, but the format has arrived at broad acceptance in the business world. Online MBAs now typically command as much respect as their campus-based counterparts.
"Online learning is certainly valuable," says Joe Mullings, chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group, the world's leading search firm in the medical device industry. "From my experience, more than 80% of MBAs were earned online."
This guide offers an overview of online degree employment prospects, delving into the history of online education, student satisfaction with online MBA programs, and professional perspectives on what employers think about online degrees.
The Increasing Prevalence of Online Degrees
Online higher education has seen major growth in the past decade -- the National Center for Education Statistics reports that 35% of all U.S. college students (nearly 7 million) were enrolled in at least one distance learning course in 2018, and more than 3 millions students took exclusively online courses.
In an effort to accommodate students of all types, business schools have significantly expanded their online MBA offerings. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the main accrediting body for business programs, reports a 54% increase in the number of schools offering online MBA programs between 2012 and 2016.
The convenience and flexibility of online education create obvious incentives for students, which plays out in enrollment figures across the country: the Graduate Management Admissions Council reported that 70% of MBA programs saw a decline in applications to traditional two-year campus-based programs in 2017. As schools increase their distance education offerings, online MBA programs and other programs that cater to working students have become a norm among business professionals.
A Brief History of Online Education
Distance education is rooted in the correspondence courses of the 18th century, which used the postal service to deliver assignments to students. Evolving alongside 20th century developments in radio and television, distance education first experimented with an online format in the 1980s. However, it was the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 that paved the way for major developments in online education throughout the decade.
In 1989, the University of Phoenix became one of the first institutions to offer online courses, leading other colleges to experiment with online learning throughout the early and mid 1990s. Online education surged in 1998 with the introduction of three major institutions: NYU Online, Western Governors University, and the California Virtual University.
Online education experienced growing pains throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as schools struggled to adapt traditional course material to a virtual format, and many programs, such as NYU Online, were shuttered. However, developments in online pedagogy, coupled with the increasing prevalence and improvement of technology, fueled continued growth throughout the 2000s, with more than 4 million college students enrolling in online classes by 2008.
Online education flourished in the 2010s, seeing significant increases in student enrollment and program offerings throughout the decade. Today, business schools have developed online MBAs to offer challenging, engaging course content to students regardless of location.
Today's Online MBA Programs
Online MBAs vary by factors such as program format, curriculum offerings, and delivery mode. This section offers an overview of what to expect from an online MBA, highlighting some of the major distinguishing factors among different types of programs.
Online MBA Hiring Statistics
Online MBA programs offer unmatched flexibility for students, but how do their academic and professional outcomes compare to campus programs?
A campus-based program typically offers more access to communication with peers and faculty, networking opportunities, and campus resources and advising, which may lead prospective students to question if online programs can really match up to their campus counterparts. However, online MBAs have grown both in popularity and in the specialization of their course offerings, to the point where many students now find them preferable to campus programs.
Regardless of program format, the professional desirability of the MBA remains high:
A 2019 survey from the business data platform Statista reports that 76% of companies say they plan to hire MBA graduates in the coming year.
A survey of recent graduates from dozens of prominent online MBA programs conducted by the business school site Poets & Quants offers insight into the professional value of an online MBA. A median 30.2% of respondents report that they changed jobs after earning their MBA. Among those who remained at their current job, a median 52.7% reported they received a pay raise as a direct result of earning an MBA.
Online MBA graduates report a generally high level of satisfaction with their school's alumni network and other professional connections gained from their program, particularly at top business schools like the University of Southern California and Carnegie Mellon University.
In general, students report a high level of overall satisfaction with their online MBA:
At most schools, 90% or more of graduates say their MBA helped them accomplish their professional goals.
Renowned business schools, like the University of Texas at Dallas' Jindal School of Management, boast online student satisfaction rates of 100%.
A median of 86.7% of respondents also say their MBA program helped them accomplish their secondary goals. As Mullings notes, "Most applicants are proud of their accomplishments, since they typically earn [their MBA] while working a 50+-hour week."
Can I Get a Job With an Online Degree?
For some students, the choice between an online and campus-based MBA program rests on a simple question: will I get hired with an online degree? While online education has grown significantly in the past two decades, the format remains relatively new in the broader history of higher education, and some students may still view online degrees as less reputable than campus-based programs.
The widespread adoption of online learning throughout the past decade has eliminated most of the stigma attached to online degrees. Studies indicate that students learn just as effectively online as they do on campus -- in some instances, more effectively. Today, many experts agree that in the job market, employers care more about the quality of a school than whether a degree was earned online.
Students only need to look at the rising number of programs to see that the online MBA has emerged as a professionally viable degree. Mullings agrees with the normalization of online degrees among employers, stating, "MBAs online are totally acceptable on the whole."
Employer Impressions of Online MBAs
A 2013 study on the market value of online degrees found that among employers, "attitudes towards online education are significantly more positive if the respondent has had experience with online education." Throughout the 2010s, attitudes shifted as more employers became familiar with online learning.
As recently as 2010, 66% of human resources managers said they viewed job applicants with online degrees less favorably than those with campus degrees. However, by the end of the decade those numbers had flipped: a 2018 study published by Northeastern University found 61% of HR managers "firmly believe that online learning is of equal or greater quality to more traditional methods."
In general, employers with an eye toward the future are likely to view online degrees more favorably. In the same Northeastern study, 52% of employers said they believe the majority of graduate degrees will be completed online in the future, while 33% believe that, ultimately, online education will become more effective than traditional campus education.
What Do Employers Think of My Online Degree?
As noted earlier, most employers care about the quality of the school and its business program far more than the delivery format of the degree itself. The Society of Human Resource Managers reports that 92% of employers view online degrees from established brick-and-mortar colleges favorably, typically treating them the same as campus degrees.
The most selective business schools, most of which lack fully online MBAs, may offer a slight hiring advantage, as Mullings notes: "Of course, the top B-Schools like Harvard, UPenn, University of Chicago and others have elite status and clearly are differentiators. However, once you move out of those Top 10, there is less of a consideration whether it was an online MBA or in person." It's also worth noting that several top business colleges, such as the University of North Carolina and Carnegie Mellon University, now offer MBAs online.
According to Mullings, "The school/degree weight is generally most important in the beginning of the vetting process. It is typically a go or no-go for consideration." A school's reputation for a certain specialization can also affect hiring prospects: "Some colleges are well known for areas of expertise based on certain career professions," Mullings adds.
In general, employers are likely to care less about whether a degree was earned online and more about a program's reputation and what type of specialized skills a graduate brings to a position.
The questions around online MBAs include "Why did they choose to pursue an MBA?", "How long did it take?", "What specifically have they used in their day to day workflow that was earned from the MBA?", and "Would they do it again?"
How to Present Your Online Degree
When preparing for interviews, it pays for candidates to consider how they present their online degree. In many instances, it's possible and advisable to emphasize the unique skills gained from an online program, which can help candidates distinguish themselves in an interview. The following sections outline different approaches to presenting an online MBA in resumes and interviews.
How Do I Write About My Online MBA?
In general, candidates have two options when presenting an online MBA in resumes, job applications, and cover letters: either emphasize the online aspect or omit it completely. Both strategies have advantages and disadvantages, and some applicants may opt for a combination of the two approaches.
Some candidates choose not to mention that their degree was earned online, only addressing the format of their education if it comes up naturally in an interview. This approach can help to bypass conservative hiring managers who may still hold a negative view of online learning, and it ensures that candidates receive the same consideration as any other applicant. However, omitting any mention of an online degree eliminates the opportunity to discuss the skills specifically gained from the program's delivery format.
Taking the opposite approach, job applicants might mention their online degree in a cover letter, highlighting some of the specialized skills developed through distance education, such as working remotely or leading a business project online. Completing an online MBA while maintaining a full-time job also demonstrates a candidate's ability to juggle many obligations at once -- a highly applicable skill for almost any career path.
How Do I Talk About My Online MBA?
A job interview serves as the best opportunity to discuss the unique qualities of online education, though some graduates may still choose not to mention their online degree unless specifically questioned about it.
Playing up the specialized aspects and challenges of an online MBA allows students to demonstrate the value of their education. Note that in some instances, it is best to mention an online degree outright, such as when an applicant holds recent job experience in one city but a degree from a different location.
An online MBA often requires just as much time and commitment as a campus-based degree, and students often must balance self-directed coursework with other professional obligations. The level of organization, independence, and multitasking required in these programs can translate to workplace success, so interviewees should be sure to highlight these qualities. Mullings echoes this idea: "In general, self-learning is a characteristic I look for in all of my team members. The pursuit of an MBA demonstrates the commitment to that mindset."
One common concern among hiring managers is the lack of face-to-face interaction in an online MBA. As Mullings notes, "The in-person collaboration in a learning situation includes different mindsets, cultures, work experience, and real-time interaction that a virtual experience cannot replicate." While this may be true, an online MBA also offers many unique opportunities for interaction, which graduates should call attention to.
If a program included in-person experiences, such as residency sessions or business conferences, students be sure to emphasize these activities and the interpersonal skills gained from them. If a program was conducted entirely online, students can highlight the variety of communication strategies employed for success, along with notable group activities such as the capstone.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How do I sell my online degree to my employer?
- Online MBA recipients can play up the unique skills built in their program, including working and collaborating remotely, using technology tools, and juggling several tasks at once.
- Do employers take online degrees seriously?
- Online programs have become more reputable over the past two decades, to the point that most employers now rank them the same as campus-based programs.
- Do employers accept online degrees?
- In general, employers should treat an online degree the same as they would a campus-based degree. Most employers care far more about the quality of the school than the delivery format of the degree.
- Are online degrees less valuable?
- In terms of career gains and professional outlook, an online degree should offer the same benefits as a campus-based degree. Students should be more concerned about the quality of the school and its MBA program.
- Will I get hired with an online degree?
- While no degree guarantees employment, online degrees typically command the same level of respect as their campus-based counterparts and offer the same chance of finding employment after graduation.
Meet the Expert
Joe Mullings has been building companies and careers since 1989. He founded and is chairman and CEO of The Mullings Group, the world's leading search firm in the medical device industry. The Mullings Group is responsible for more than 7000 successful searches with more than 600 companies in the medical device industry.
His clients are multi-billion-dollar companies like Johnson & Johnson, Google, Medtronic, Abbott, and Siemens, as well as the emerging startup companies that are bringing futuristic technologies, like surgical robotics, tele-robotics, artificial intelligence, and deep learning, to the market. He is also president and CEO of Dragonfly Stories, which is the production company behind the docu-series TrueFuture of which he is the host. Joe is also the founder of the media platform TMGPulse, a medtech news and opinion website. Joe has an engineering degree from The University of Dayton Ohio.