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The Most (And Least) Affordable Highly Ranked Online MBA Programs

Tuesday 13 March 2018, by Nathan Allen

Sometimes in life you don’t get what you pay for. The pricey things break and the economical options last forever. Likewise, when it comes to online MBA degrees, an extraordinary cost doesn’t guarantee prestige; nor does a bargain price tag necessarily indicate a subpar program. To help navigate the most and least expensive online MBA programs, we compiled a list: the top 25 programs in the Poets&Quants Online MBA Ranking, the top 25 in U.S. News & World Report ranking of online MBA programs, and a few of the international schools ranked in the top five in the Financial Times ranking of online MBA.

Of the 41 programs included, the average cost of an online MBA is $52,264, if we include only tuition. The gap between the high and low price tags is more than $100,000. Tuition for an online MBA from Mississippi State University is only $13,680 — lower than any other school on the list — while a degree from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business will cost you $128,000 — more than any other school on the list. Make of this what you will: Mississippi State placed 22nd in the 2018 U.S. News online MBA rankings, but was unranked in the Poets&Quants inaugural online MBA ranking. Carnegie Mellon, however, topped the Poets&Quants ranking and placed second in U.S. News — but essentially finished first after Temple’s Fox School of Business was removed for allegedly fudging GMAT data.

One program is an elite, appeal-to-all online MBA. The other has a very specific mission. “We are a land grant university, and our mission is to educate the people of Mississippi and the region,” says Cindy Smith, the director of distance learning at Mississippi State’s College of Business. “We could probably fill our seats if we raised our prices, but that would put our degree out of the reach of the people we are trying to serve.”


The next most affordable option is Ball State University’s online MBA offered through the Miller College of Business, with a total tuition cost of $18,090. The University of North Dakota was next at $19,152. Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, which ranked 12th in the U.S. News ranking, is next with a tuition price tag of $20,130. Rounding out the top five most affordable schools is the University of Wisconsin’s MBA Consortium, which costs $20,250. Wisconsin’s program placed 11th in the P&Q ranking and 14th in the U.S. News.

“We are affordable, accessible, and flexible,” Smith says of Mississippi State’s program, which does not charge any out-of-state tuition. “You can start in summer, fall or spring, and take up to eight years to complete the degree. The most frequent time to completion is two years. Our program requires no campus visits, although students are welcome to come on campus to visit, and many choose to walk in the graduation ceremony.”

Like many other top online MBA programs, the curriculum is taught by the school’s full-time MBA faculty. “Our courses are taught by tenure track faculty, the same faculty who teach on campus in the College of Business,” Smith continues. We do not rely on adjuncts or part time instructors.”


One of the oldest and most affordable programs on the list is at the University of Nebraska’s College of Business. At $30,240, Nebraska’s online MBA is the 10th most affordable and ranked 17th in this year’s P&Q ranking. Once a program for military personnel, what is now Nebraska’s online MBA was originally based at the Offutt Air Force Base located less than 15 miles from downtown Omaha and about an hour drive from Nebraska’s Lincoln campus. “Part of the reason we are able to keep our cost low is that we’ve been building on our platform for a long time, so a lot of those startup costs, we have eaten over time,” says Jake Messersmith, the executive director of graduate programs at the Nebraska College of Business.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, access to the Air Force base was restricted for faculty members, which prompted Nebraska to move the program online in 2002. The original contract the university had with the Air Force is still in place, which keeps the program exempt from normal tuition hikes that take place at public universities, despite it now being opened to the general public as well as military members. “We work hard to keep that cost low,” Messersmith says. “We are in a low cost location compared to some of our competitors.”

The majority of the most affordable schools are also in lower cost areas, mainly scattered around the Midwest and South. Meanwhile, schools closer to the coasts such as the University of North Carolina, University of Southern California, Babson College, Pepperdine University, and the University of Maryland are all among the most expensive schools on the list.


Messersmith says schools like his own and other that offer degrees at a lower price point often have to deal with the “big misperception” of getting what you pay for. “We feel like we are still able to offer a high quality experience and a high quality product to our students without having to charge such a high price,” Messersmith explains, noting the program is still 48 credit hours and is delivered by full-time faculty and is part of a large, Big 10 research university.

“What we try to do differently is engage with students as often as we can and offer them a higher level of service through our engagement professionals and advisors,” Messersmith continues. “We also try to offer additional experiential opportunities — that’s what we’re really trying to build out.”

Additional resources have recently been poured into the program, Messersmith says. The result has been an updated in-house filming studio and videographer as well as hiring two engagement coordinators who are tasked with finding more engagement opportunities for online students in leadership development programs and case competitions.

“We see this as a space that we are really strong in and can be even stronger in,” Messersmith notes. “Just know we’re not resting. We’re continuing to invest, and we see this as not a money-making program. This is a showcase program for us that we want to be meaningful for our students.”

Online students from Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC appear on screen via video feeds


Following Tepper’s $128,000 was the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School’s online MBA program priced at $114,048 as the second-most expensive on our list. After Kenan-Flagler is the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, which offers an online MBA at $95,618. Babson College’s online program was the next most expensive at $89,560 and rounding out the top five for most expensive was Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business with a cost of $89,180.

“We have one MBA program at Tepper with three delivery formats — full-time on-campus, part-time on-campus, and online,” says Cindy McAuley, the executive director for the online MBA program at Tepper. “All three formats are the exact same curriculum, faculty and access to career and leadership resources as our campus programs. Therefore, tuition is also the same and competitive with other top 20 MBA programs.”

According to McAuley, the entire online MBA program is managed in-house, complete with a video studio, media services department, as well as recruiting, student services, and career management. At North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, third party provider 2U essentially runs the entire program from videography to targeting and recruiting applicants. According to Kenan-Flager Dean Doug Shackelford, using 2U helps to curb additional costs for the Kenan-Flagler online MBA program. “If we had to provide those services, we would not be nearly as good at providing those services as they are,” Shackelford says, noting that it costs a lot to find and recruit the quality of students they are enrolling in the program.


And then comes the argument of getting what you pay for.

“There are no secrets here. Schools like ours and Carnegie Mellon are top 20 business schools,” Shackelford says. “And our tuition is more expensive than most of the other schools you would see on there.” Both McAuley and Shackelford emphasized that their schools are hitting the same quality of education in the online MBA programs as the full-time and part-time offerings. “If you try to hit that standard, you are going to end up having a program that is equally costly,” Shackelford continues. “You are also going to end up having a program that students view as equally valuable.”

McAuley has similar sentiments. “We find that a Tepper online MBA student values a quality curriculum, access to top faculty, opportunities to connect in-person with colleagues and access to campus resources over cost,” McAuley says. “We are focused on delivering a top-tier education online, not enrolling as many students as possible.”


Another commonality among the top two programs is students meeting outside of the virtual world. Like, in real-life. At Tepper, they are called Access Weekends and take place six times a year. McAuley says the Friday through Sunday programs include in-person classes, career and leadership activities, and networking opportunities with classmates. Students front the cost of travel, but the school covers lodging and meals once the students get to Tepper’s Pittsburgh campus.

At Kenan-Flagler, online MBA students meet once a year at a location in the U.S., twice a year outside of the U.S. and once at North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus. “Those immersions are extremely expensive for us to put on,” Shackelford notes.

The in-person component is one of three parts to the program, Shackelford explains. First, Shackelford says is the “one-way delivery” method. “We have a three-camera, eight-person production crew, which produces something akin to documentary-type quality,” Shackelford explains. The videographers either setup shop in the back of a classroom or in a studio. “I call it a poor man’s — maybe a very poor man’s — 60 Minutes-type documentary,” Shackelford adds. That material doesn’t look like anything you’ve ever seen that you would call a lecture. “It needs to be highly engaging.” A lot of the cost of the program stems from those high-quality video courses.

Next, according to Shackelford, is the interactive class piece. “We call it The Brady Bunch,” Shackelford quips. The courses are limited to 15 students and one professor and are setup in a non-lecture, seminar format. It’s called The Brady Bunch because everyone’s face is on the screen in a grid format for the entirety of the 90-minute class period. “Everybody knows everybody else’s name,”says Shackelford, noting the format of the class is one of the elements that separates Kenan-Flagler’s online version from others. “We’re trying to build the best in-class program of this type that’s ever been done and build a brand and reputation for doing that and attract students who want to be part of such a program. We want to attract great students that meet the same standards we’re used to having in our other programs.”


Once again, both McAuley and Shackelford maintain, the price point comes down to the prestige of the schools.

“Tepper MBA students gain a depth of knowledge in both leadership and analytics,” McAuley says. “They can not only use data to make decisions, but have the leadership skills to mobilize teams for the successful implementation of those decisions. Students who are looking for this kind of rigorous training will find it in any of our delivery formats, including our Online MBA.”

Same goes for Shackelford. “We weren’t ever driven in this program by how much money we can make,” he says. “We see this as a huge emerging market. And we want to be the top provider of education in what we believe will be an increasingly important delivery method for business education going forward.”

See the next page for the list of the most and least affordable highly ranked online MBA programs.

A prospective MBA applicant meets at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper table. Photo by Nathan Allen

The post The Most (And Least) Affordable Highly Ranked Online MBA Programs appeared first on Poets&Quants.

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