Who wants an online MBA?

06 April 2023

Andrew Crisp looks further into the data from this year’s Tomorrow’s MBA study.


Not all prospective MBA students are the same. The Tomorrow’s MBA study, published recently by EFMD and CarringtonCrisp reveals some particular characteristics about those who want to study online – they are more likely to be older, female and less well-paid.

Online MBA students tend to be older than those looking to study full-time on campus. Tomorrow’s MBA found 45% of those wanting to study online are aged 33-40 compared with only 38% in the total study sample. Just over a quarter of those thinking about online study have 13 or more years work experience, while among full-time candidates this drops to 16%.

It might be that this group felt unable to take an MBA when they were younger, but now see its potential value to accelerate their careers and online study allows them to take a degree without giving up their job.

Online candidates are also more likely to be women. In the total sample, 39% of prospective MBA students are women, while among those considering online study this rises to 48%.

Even though online candidates tend to be older than their full-time counterparts, they also tend to be less well paid, perhaps again reflecting that their careers may not have advanced as quickly and they are now looking for further support. Just over a quarter (26%) had a salary of under £50,000 in the last year in the total sample, but this rises to 35% among those considering online study.

Although online students still intend to take admissions tests, they are much less likely to have done so, appearing to leave their decision-making later. In the total sample only 26% have not yet registered to take any admissions test but intend to do so, while among those preferring online study, this rises to 49%. Almost half (47%) of the total sample have been researching MBA options for some time and expect to apply in the next 12 months, while this drops to 41% among those who prefer online study. Flexible or multiple start dates for online programmes perhaps allow candidates to make later decisions than those seeking a full-time degree with perhaps a single annual start date.

The top five most valued topics that students want to learn about are similar irrespective of how students want to study, but outside the top five things change a little. Climate change is slightly less important for those wanting to study online, although it is only a small difference. However, Leadership and Project Management are almost twice as popular among those who prefer online study compared to other approaches.

While both audiences consider content about global challenges, ethical leadership, responsible management and diversity, equity and inclusion almost equally as very or extremely important to include in an MBA, those considering study online are less passionate about some of this content. For those studying on campus, 29% consider responsible management content as extremely important and 34% have a similar view on global challenges, but this drops to 21% and 27% respectively among those thinking about online study.

And while the sources of information used to find out about MBAs is broadly similar across both audiences, there are some variations. For online candidates, LinkedIn is much more important than those considering on campus study, being used by 44% compared with 26%.

Ultimately, it may be money that sets apart the two groups of prospective MBA students. Among those considering online study 30% say they may not take an MBA if they feel the fees are too much for them and 26% if they feel that the MBA doesn't offer a good return on investment for them, while these figures drop to 23% and 20% among the total sample of prospective MBA students.

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