Online MBA degrees: Which one is right for me?

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After finding your footing in the workforce for the past few years, you’re ready to go back to school. But unlike your undergraduate degree, you’re not quite in a position to put your life on hold and head to campus five days a week to continue your education. That’s why many business professionals choose distance learning, which offers greater access to their desired programs without requiring relocation.

Whether online or on-campus, a Master of Business Administration is a demanding yet rewarding experience, and such advanced learning can help define the future of your professional career. To help you parse through the options, here’s an overview of what to know about online MBA degrees, including the program and curriculum factors that can help you decide which learning track is right for you.

What to know about online MBA degrees

While all programs and specialties have their nuances, some important aspects of online MBA degrees, in general, can help you make an informed decision about distance-learning options. When you’re ready to advance your business acumen, here’s what you need to know about online master’s degree programs:

Gain tools to advance or switch your career path

An online MBA degree can lead to advanced professional development, both for students who wish to enhance their knowledge within their current industry as well as those who are interested in switching career paths. In fact, The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)—makers of the GMAT exam—in 2017 surveyed 14,651 graduate school alumni about their post-MBA careers and found that 52% of them were working in a new industry. Furthermore, many of those career transfers (39% of those surveyed) ended up in a profession they never considered before enrolling in business school. These alumni credit the MBA experience with exposing them to defining opportunities that led to such shifts in their business focus.

A newspaper clipping that reads Job opportunities.

Many MBA graduates find careers that are more fulfilling.

 

GMAC conducted the survey again the following year. The 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey includes responses from 10,882 alumni representing 274 institutions and various graduation years—and the promising results found that the vast majority of business school alumni are employed, with 79% working for a company and 10% serving as self-employed entrepreneurs. Of those working for companies, 61% work for multinational organizations, 33% for companies with more than 25,000 employees and 8% at start-ups.

Of those surveyed in 2018, 87% feel their graduate management education accelerated their career advancement, especially when compared to their peers who do not have an MBA degree. According to the survey, nearly half (49%) of recent alumni secured mid-level positions and are on the track to holding senior, executive or c-suite positions a few years after earning the advanced degree.

As such, graduates can expect positive professional outcomes from earning a master’s degree. Many Smith students even accept new positions before they finish the program, which was the case for 58% of Smith Online MBA graduates surveyed in 2018. The versatility of the business skills and knowledge gained during the experience opens doors to various managerial, executive and refined applications. Elective courses and specialized tracks can further enhance specific abilities for students who have a particular career path or industry in mind.

Pursuing an online MBA degree allows students to keep their current positions while attending graduate school, which is beneficial for those who wish to advance their careers within the same industry. For professionals looking to switch career paths, the ability to continue working can at least help with the financial aspects of the degree.

Take rigorous online courses

Misperceptions about online degree programs may lead some to believe that online courses are easier than their on-campus counterparts. However, both learning formats award the same degrees from comparable workloads and curriculum. Online MBA degrees also provide students with a foundation of business concepts and abilities while further developing critical-thinking and decision-making skills.

The differences are more so in the types of learning styles and interactions than the concepts or assignments covered during the course. Group projects and interactive discussions still take place in online degree programs, just through virtual tools like video conferencing and online messaging that facilitate the necessary collaboration.

For instance, the Online MBA program at the Smith School of Business offers the same rigorous and fulfilling coursework as the on-campus program. In fact, many of the professors that teach online courses also lead on-campus sessions with the same curriculum. Students also engage in two on-campus residences, which solidify the connections made in the online environment with in-person interactions.

View your work experience as a positive asset

The many years you spend in the workforce after completing your undergraduate degree can benefit you when you return to school. Most business schools prefer when applicants have professional work experience, with several programs tailored to students with a certain level of business knowledge from the start. Online MBA degrees are especially suited to working professionals, as the nature of an online program allows students to maintain their current positions while enrolled in the program.

What’s more, your years in the workforce can help prepare you for a master’s degree program, ensuring you have the necessary background in basic business concepts to succeed in an advanced program. Your professional experiences will allow you to contribute an informed perspective to classroom discussions, adding to the rich learning environment that develops from a collection of students with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience. Your peers will likely become close collaborators and networking resources throughout your MBA studies, and each of their individual business-related backgrounds will help augment your own knowledge. You can also apply the concepts covered in class to your previous experiences, which helps with comprehension and future applications.

As such, multiple years of working in a professional role can strengthen your application. Many MBA programs advise prospective students to work for a few years before they apply for graduate school. For instance, the Smith School of Business highly recommends that applicants have a minimum of two years of work experience for strong consideration. In reality, most Smith Online MBA candidates generally have 5 to 10 years.

Consider the program’s recommendations as well as the student body to determine if your professional experience complements the community. While a diverse classroom is important, having too much or too little experience could hinder your ability to connect with peers and succeed in the program.

Enjoy flexibility—with certain time commitments

Flexibility is one of the main selling points that convince professionals to obtain an online MBA. This is because online courses offer students a higher degree of convenience than learning in a traditional classroom setting. With a mix of asynchronous and synchronous learning, online coursework easily adapts to personal and professional schedules. This allows students to balance their studies with other commitments and gives them the freedom to complete an advanced degree without relocating to be near a campus.

Flexible start dates can make it even more convenient for working professionals to pursue a degree, allowing them to choose a time that doesn’t coincide with the busiest seasons at work. Smith Online MBA students can choose to start the program in January, May or September.

However, it’s important to note that even with such flexibility, online learning still requires a time commitment. While you can pursue some aspects of online programs at your own pace, there are still curriculum specifics, syllabi and timelines to follow. Most online assignments will have deadlines and set exam schedules will require you to be available for testing at certain times.

The Smith Online MBA program considers the benefits of self-paced learning and in-classroom attendance, which is why the program offers the best of both. Students can make in-person, real-time connections through required synchronous live sessions each week. Students are then free to complete the coursework at their own pace during the rest of the week. The two residencies at College Park, Maryland, further facilitate live conversation and networking skill development and give online students a touch of the campus experience. Smith students can earn their degrees in as few as 24 months, but doing so, of course, requires completing the right amount of coursework each semester.

Overall, the Smith Online MBA program allows students to enjoy greater scheduling freedom than a traditional MBA degree program without sacrificing the major advantages of a standard college environment.

Apply for financial assistance and federal aid programs

As an MBA candidate, you’ll still be eligible for financial assistance and aid programs. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, for instance, is available regardless of applicant age, education level or enrollment status. The FAFSA should be your first port of call after submitting your graduate school applications. Be sure to check when submissions open and close, as early filers often receive the most aid.

A paper student loan application

You can apply for federal aid, but keep in mind the date change.

 

You may also qualify for scholarships, although the specifics of each will vary. You can use CareerOneStop, a tool sponsored by the Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, to search for scholarships, grants, fellowships and other forms of financial aid. Some programs may also reward their own merit-based scholarships, which you can connect with financial advisors to learn more about. The Smith School of Business, for example, offers financial awards to a select number of applicants based on scholastic merit, professional accomplishment and evidence of leadership.

Also, tax options offer credits and deductions that can help with academic costs. These include:

  • 529 College Savings Plan: This tax-friendly savings account is dedicated to college expenses.
  • Lifetime Learning Credit: Offered by the Internal Revenue Service for qualified tuition and related expenses, this credit allows eligible students to reduce their income tax statement by up to $2,000.
  • Tuition and Fees Deduction: Eligible students can lower the amount of their income subject to tax by up to $4,000.
  • Student Loan Interest Deduction: Students with a modified adjusted gross income that’s less than $80,000 can receive a deduction for paying interest on a student loan used for higher education. This deduction can decrease taxable income by up to $2,500.
  • Business Deduction for Work-Related Education: Employees who can itemize their deductions may be able to write off certain college fees as business expenses as long as they meet the IRS requirements.

For even more financial help, consider talking to your employer about a sponsorship program. While they may ask that you commit to working for the company for a designated period of time after you graduate, your employer may be willing to fund aspects of your advanced education. The Smith School of Business holds corporate partnerships with specific organizations to offer reduced tuition and waived fees for full-time employees, so your company may even already be on the list.

Finding the right online MBA program

Once you know that an online degree is the right academic step for you, consider several factors when determining which online MBA program is a good fit for your learning style, academic needs and professional goals. Distinguishing factors include:

  • Accreditation: National or regional recognition is an important sign that the school or program meets the highest standards in quality and rigor. Not only is this essential for verifying the credibility of the online degree, but it’s also important for students seeking financial aid, as only those enrolled in accredited schools will be eligible for federal student loans and grants. A stamp of approval from the Association to Advance Collegiate School of Business (AACSB), for example, is one of the business-school accreditations to trust.
  • Reputation: Along with formal accreditation, there are other indicators of an online program’s credibility and quality. For instance, distinguished faculty generally translates to high-quality, fulfilling courses. Online MBA program rankings also highlight the top options. For instance, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Smith School of Business No. 8 on its latest list of the best online MBA programs. The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek and Poets & Quants are other credible sources that provide business school reviews and recommendations.
  • Student services and resources: Make sure the school offers student support services, such as financial aid resources and career advisory centers, that are comparable to the on-campus versions. Access to faculty and the availability of tech support are especially important considerations for online students.
  • Community: Look into enrollment statistics to gauge the type of professionals that generally attend the school’s online MBA program. What’s more, research the school’s alumni network and resources. These elements will help you determine if the program is a good cultural fit for your needs and preferences.
  • Time to completion: Consider how many years you can expect to dedicate to earning your degree through various programs. The average time it takes students to complete the degree may complement or hinder your schedule and preferences.

Among the most important distinctions between different online MBA degrees—even within the same program—are the curriculum specializations that allow students to tailor their skills and knowledge to a specific business area of interest. The best online MBA programs provide students with foundational knowledge while still catering to focused interests and aspirations.

The Smith School of Business offers foundational coursework that provides students with a working knowledge of business topics like entrepreneurship, data analytics, management, ethics, global economic environments, corporate finance, operations, negotiations and more. Such well-rounded exposure to business concepts makes Smith graduates versatile leaders who can work across teams and departments.

From there, students can choose from five highly relevant specializations focused on the most important aspects of modern business: Accounting, Finance, Information Systems and Business Analytics, Marketing and Supply Chain Management. Students looking for the broadest MBA experience can also choose to enroll in the General Track. Here’s a look at the concepts covered in each of these specialized learning tracks:

Accounting

This coursework teaches students how to analyze, track and communicate financial information for business strategies; make data-driven decisions; and manage assets. Current accounting selective offerings include:

  • Fraud Examination, Detection and Deterrence in the Business Environment: Covers the business resources used to deter and detect fraud, as well as the necessary steps to take when fraud occurs.
  • Financial Planning and Control Systems for Managers and Consultants: Discusses topics like cost management systems, financial performance evaluations, budgeting, competitor analysis, capital investments and more.
  • The Impact of Taxation on Business Entities: Examines organizations from the perspective of entity formation, operation and liquidation.

The specialization can prepare graduates for accounting roles as well as leadership positions that require financial skills. Students who choose the accounting specialization often pursue positions such as:

  • Accountant
  • Accounting consultant
  • Financial controller
  • Budget analyst
  • Tax manager
  • Auditing manager
  • Directing of accounting
  • Finance director

Whether you’re interested in enhancing your accounting skills or acquiring the sought-after financial capabilities, the Smith experience can give you the confidence, abilities and knowledge to pursue a career in accounting.

Finance

The finance specialization introduces students to money management in the modern business environment. The coursework focuses on corporate finance, financial restructuring and investing. The selective offerings within the finance specialization currently include:

  • Commercial Bank Management: Focuses on bank structure and regulation; governance, asset and liability management; and bank-related risks that affect financial institutions.
  • Financial Restructuring: Examines multiple ways to increase value through corporate restructuring, such as mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs, carve-outs, leveraged buy-outs and bankruptcy restructurings.
  • Corporate Valuation: Offers insight into analytical frameworks and valuation techniques related to asset management, corporate finance, financial journalism, financial market regulation, research, sales, and trading via practical applications of course content.

Graduates can complete the program with the ability to evaluate financial markets and risks, allowing them to lead organizational money matters with confident, strategic and numbers-driven decision-making. As such, many Smith graduates who pursue the finance specialization fill roles like financial analyst and corporate controller, eventually climbing the ladder to managerial and executive positions. These leadership roles may include:

  • Portfolio manager
  • Director of investments
  • Director of finance
  • Director of financial planning and analysis
  • Vice president of finance
  • Chief financial officer

As with other specializations, the finance track can equip you with the refined abilities necessary for a fruitful career in finance.

Information Systems and Business Analytics

With advanced abilities to collect massive amounts of data, organizations need employees who can translate the numbers into valuable insights and meaningful conclusions. Designed with this increasing necessity to gather and interpret key information with speed and precision, the Information Systems and Business Analytics specialization exposes students to data management and analysis. Upon completing the coursework, graduates can understand how to implement proper information systems in various business settings.

The coursework includes the following selective courses:

  • Data Mining and Predictive Analytics: Introduces students to data analysis tools and techniques, with a focus on descriptive and predictive analytics and business applications in marketing, finance, health care and operations.
  • Social Media and Web Analytics: Covers concepts and principles related to online platforms, social media and web analytics, as well as the business opportunities and challenges associated with such technologies.
  • Managing Digital Businesses and Platforms: Examines digital businesses with a particular focus on what makes them unique and how leaders can best manage them.

The skills and knowledge gained through this focused learning track especially apply in roles such as:

  • Data scientist
  • Quantitative analyst
  • Operations research analyst
  • Market research analyst
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Applications architect
  • Business analyst manager
  • Chief operations officer

Big data is at the heart of the modern business world, and organizations want innovative, capable employees to keep them ahead of the curve. If you have an interest in the analytics side of business, earning an advanced degree with a focus on the latest concepts and tools can give your resume a boost within a competitive market.

Marketing

Designed for professionals with a passion for the marketing side of the business, this specialized track explores the latest topics and tools. This includes data-driven marketing strategy, brand management, consumer behavior and so on. Students who choose the Marketing specialization can not only build their expertise but also develop a portfolio of marketing skills and campaigns that apply across a variety of products, services, companies and industries.

  • Co-Creating Customer Experience: Teaches students the dynamics and DNA of customer experience, including how to design, implement and innovate customer experiences for better retention.
  • Customer Equity Management: Examines the strategic and analytical aspects of customer equity, equipping students with a working knowledge of the important metrics and implementations in business-to-consumer and business-to-business environments.
  • Consumer Behavior: Defines consumer behavior and highlights how marketing managers can utilize the information to develop effective strategies and campaigns.

With strengthened skills and deeper marketing knowledge, Smith graduates can earn high-level positions, promotions and other professional opportunities. As such, earning an MBA with a marketing focus often qualifies graduates for senior management and executive roles, including:

  • Brand manager
  • Digital marketing specialist
  • Product marketing manager
  • Strategic marketing director
  • Head of global content and digital marketing
  • Director of marketing and communications
  • Vice president of sales and marketing
  • Chief marketing officer

Marketing tools and techniques change at rapid speeds, which is why developing your skills and knowledge with an online MBA degree simultaneous to working in the field can be so advantageous. What’s more, the critical thinking and data-driven decision-making skills you can gain during your studies will remain relevant for many years to come.

Supply Chain Management

With a curriculum designed for the future of the industry, the Supply Chain Management specialization covers risk management, operational efficiency and innovation in the field. Students also learn how to work with cutting-edge supply chain technology applications, such as cloud-based programs like Resilinc and SAP.

The current supply chain management course offerings include:

  • Global Trade Logistics: Provides an in-depth view of logistics and supply chain issues related to import and export management from a global perspective.
  • Supply Chain Risk Management: Displays how SCRM is key to organization resiliency, giving students the chance to develop skills in risk identification, assessment and mitigation, as well as work with industry-standard software to gather the necessary analytics.
  • Innovative Solutions to Supply Chain Challenges: Utilizes computer simulations to allow students to address industry topics, collaboration strategies and intermodal operations in an interactive, illustrative way.

With the skills to oversee business logistics, operations, sourcing and product development with confidence, graduates with a supply chain focus generally fill positions such as:

  • Supply chain specialist
  • Logistics analyst
  • Sourcing manager
  • Supply chain analytics manager
  • Product manager
  • Inventory manager
  • Director of operations
  • Director of supply chain management

If you have an interest in logistics and operations, this learning track can enable you to lead a successful career in the field.

General Track

Students who want a broad MBA experience can choose the general learning track, which provides a more diverse understanding of various business concepts. Rather than limiting students to selective courses in one focus area, they can pick and choose the ones that most interest them. As a result, they can learn about the core concepts of each focused learning track.

The cross-functionality of a general MBA degree is ideal for students who don’t want a narrow focus but have an interest in honing their leadership abilities. With the varied skills and knowledge gained throughout the experience, you can be a well-rounded, multi-skilled business professional who can work in multiple industries.

No matter which track meets your business interests, you can expect the same favorable outcomes of previous Smith graduates. According to data obtained from a 2018 survey, the average base compensation for Smith graduates is $98,629. What’s more, many accepted roles at major companies like Under Armour, CSX, AT&T, Marriott and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Enrolling in an online MBA degree program

Of course, the program you choose will have a significant impact on how fulfilling an MBA experience you receive. On your end, however, hard work, time commitment and effective time management will influence how much you can retain and apply from the learning experience. What’s more, developing a solid idea of your goals before enrolling will help you choose the right program—and get the most out of the online experience once enrolled.

As an AACSB-accredited school, Smith offers a flexible and engaging online MBA curriculum led by a distinguished faculty of accomplished business experts and respected industry thought leaders. Through a combination of self-paced and experiential learning, you’ll hone your leadership abilities, develop high-level skills, understand how to make data-driven decisions and gain valuable expertise in essential areas of business. It’s an online educational experience that’s made for ambitious, highly motivated professionals who are ready for more.

If you’re interested in joining the Smith Online MBA community, check out our program overview or call 888.836.4735 to connect with an advisor.

 

Recommended Readings:

The specializations you can pursue with a University of Maryland Online MBA degree

Why an MBA is still the best investment you will ever make

 

Sources:

The 2017 Alumni Perspectives Survey by GMAC

The 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey by GMAC

Tax Benefits for Education by IRS

Best Online MBA Programs by U.S. News and World Report

Online MBA by University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business