Why online MBA programmes are attracting more students than expected in 2020

Business schools are recording double-digit growth in MBA applicants this year.

By U2B Staff 

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When the pandemic first struck in early 2020, MBA providers feared the worst. International students could no longer travel abroad, universities had to be closed, and budgets were slashed. There was a mad dash to take courses online and re-design curricula.

As thousands of employees lost their jobs or got paycuts, there were also fears that they would defer their plans for online MBA programmes in 2020 as well.

Despite the odds, Boston University’s Questrom School of Business has doubled its enrolled students for the online MBA programme, attracting 401 new students compared to 200 as expected for the semester beginning August 2020.

The school also has 100 students already confirmed for the programme’s second cohort that begins in January 2021.

Questrom Dean Susan Fournier said, “We’ve had challenges that impacted production and space, but we worked through all of that. We doubled our goals in admission and the quality of the students was irresistible, really amazing. With everything else going on, it has just turned into a very manageable project. Things are going great.”

The Financial Times gathered data from 13 of the top 20 schools on its ranking list and found that they had all attracted more applications for the MBA cohort starting later this year compared to the same period last year.

According to the article, Insead had the biggest jump this year with a 57% rise in applications on 2019 levels for the coming academic year, while Iese Business School in Barcelona reported a 12% rise year on year and a record number of applications.

Other top schools such as MIT Sloan School of Management also rebounded with double-digit percentage increases in applications since lockdowns were introduced in March.

The Financial Times noted that during times of recession and economic uncertainty, people tend to take a career break to update their skills and build a professional network at business school.

When the economy is strong, the demand for MBA courses tends to be low because potential applicants have more opportunities to seek promotions rather than turn to executive education.

This is the case in the US, where the strong economy in the past few years before the pandemic was a major factor in declining MBA applications in the US.

Lawrence Linker, chief executive of MBA Link, an admissions consultancy, said, “We had many years of uninterrupted growth but the economic summer is over and it’s time to go back to school. It’s an age-old pattern. People have always sought to educate themselves when faced with new challenges.”

This shows that amidst a pandemic, people are not shying away from pursuing executive education. Plus, universities are working harder to attract more students during uncertain times.

Business schools are attempting to allay concerns that online MBA programmes don’t offer the same benefits as in-person courses such as networking opportunities and industry connections.


At Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, the online MBA normally begins with a residency at the University Park campus so that students have the opportunity to meet the faculty, network with each other and participate in team-building exercises.

This year, the pandemic forced these programmes to be held online instead, specifically through Zoom. The transition turned out to be a success.

Sean Kenney, one of the students in the virtual MBA residency in May, said, “Bringing 60 strangers together online, conveying high levels of enthusiasm and imparting a sense of community all while delivering exceptional material with no hiccups or IT issues was something of a miracle. It was an incredibly impressive team collaboration.”

The virtual MBA residence took place over four days, covering presentations from guest speakers and group activities, a workshop on improvisation and storytelling in business, and lectures about team processes.

Kenney said, “We were never sitting for long before a breakout session was initiated, a discussion opened up or a new instructor jumped in. There seemed to be an excellent awareness of the challenges of maintaining engagement over long periods in a virtual setting. It made me feel like I made the right choice.”

Through leveraging virtual platforms, appears that the draw of online MBA programmes hasn’t lost its lustre in 2020. The flexibility of online MBAs is still a major factor for professionals as they can balance their studies with family and work life.

Hillary Butler, Senior Director of Major Gifts at Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, recently graduated from the online MBA programme at Auburn University (Harbert). She found the flexibility to be one of her favourite parts of being in an online MBA programme.

She said, “It was the ability to do it anywhere in the world. For the most part, people have said your life gets put on hold when you start your MBA. Not with the iMBA program. Since its 100% online, as a student, you have the ability to still maintain your everyday routine and pursue an MBA. Whether you travel for work or get relocated, it doesn’t matter. It truly allows for flexibility.”