Online MBA vs. Full-Time On-Campus MBA: Which Is Better For You?

Today's online MBA programs offer prospective students the same academic rigor, networking opportunities and career boost as traditional MBA degree programs.

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This blog post was originally published in March 2022, and was revised in June 2023.

Determining whether a Master of Business Administration will help you reach your goals may be straightforward – even after you factor the time commitment and ROI of an MBA into your decision-making process. Choosing the right business school program may be more challenging. Graduate business degree programs now come in various formats, which means you need to carefully consider the benefits of online MBA programs vs. traditional MBA programs plus the virtues of other, less common MBA formats.

In some respects, on-campus, early career and online MBA degree programs tend to be quite similar. Most have roughly equivalent admissions standards and confer the same highly respected degree: the Master of Business Administration. However, traditional graduate programs typically require students to make a full-time commitment, while online and other programs are more often a flexible, part-time MBA options. Programs also vary significantly from institution to institution when it comes to curricula. Many online and on-campus MBA programs cover business management fundamentals with few or no electives or concentrations, though industry-specific curriculums are increasingly common at the more forward-thinking, flexible MBA programs.

The top online MBA programs and other alternative MBA programs closely mirror the student experience offered in traditional MBA programs while providing more flexibility. Students enrolled in SMU Cox School of Business’ part-time online MBA programs, for example, study the same concepts with the same faculty. MBA Direct program and MBA Online program enrollees have the same access to career counseling and placement services. Remember that this isn’t universally true – nor will it necessarily be the deciding factor in your decision. You have to identify what you need and want most from an MBA program, look critically at what on-campus, online and other MBA programs have to offer and then compare your priorities to the features common to online and traditional MBA programs.

What are the Benefits of On-Campus MBA Programs?

The primary benefits traditional full-time, on-campus MBA programs offer revolve around ease of access. Business master’s degree students in traditional programs may find it easier to build professional relationships because they get more facetime with their classmates and have more opportunities to get to know professors. They can use libraries, on-site research materials and other resources on campus. They can also attend corporate recruiting events, guest lectures, business seminars, networking events and other career-boosting activities held on or near campus.

As mentioned, some business schools invest a lot to make on-campus resources and networking opportunities available to distance learners. Online MBA candidates enrolled in Cox School of Business programs can take in-person electives, attend on-campus events and tap into student resources many other institutions do not offer students in remote programs.

What are the Benefits of Online MBA Programs?

Online MBA programs offer accessibility and flexibility. Students pursuing MBAs online can attend classes from anywhere in the world. For example, SMU online MBA and MBA Direct candidates can attend a top-ranked business degree program without relocating to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. They also save time and money because they do not have to commute to and from campus. Additionally, online programs are often more flexible than on-campus programs, with some or all coursework delivered asynchronously. Students can customize their course loads around their work schedules and tackle projects at their own pace. However, that does not mean that pursuing an MBA online is an isolating experience.

The best online MBA programs prioritize network building and weave opportunities for connection into courses. SMU Cox purposefully keeps class sizes small to promote engagement between peers and professors. Students come from diverse academic, professional, and cultural backgrounds, enriching the educational experience. And the online MBA and MBA Direct immersions, coupled with the simulations and consultative experiences, give distance learners numerous opportunities to build the kinds of relationships that foster business success.

Questions to Ask Yourself as You Consider Your MBA Options

To decide whether a traditional on-campus MBA or an online MBA is right for you, think about how much flexibility you need, what you want to get out of an MBA program, how comfortable you are with distance learning and whether you are a good fit for the programs you are considering.

For example, SMU Cox offers two pathways for professionals looking to earn MBAs online. Those who recently earned bachelor’s degrees and launched business careers can earn an MBA in just under three years (33 months) in the online MBA Direct program at SMU Cox School of Business. The MBA Direct’s interdisciplinary curriculum is geared toward early career professionals who want to learn in-demand management competencies, enhance their soft skills and grow their networks. Meanwhile, the Online MBA program attracts more experienced business professionals who wish to develop their leadership skills and advance more quickly in their careers. Both online MBA and MBA Direct candidates receive robust career support – specifically career coaching for students in the former program and Career Management Services for students in the latter program.

If you have mulled over the primary differences between online MBA programs and full-time, on-campus programs at length but still are unsure which is right for you, answering the following questions can help you narrow down your options.

Do You Want to Earn an MBA While Working Full-Time?

Online programs are more likely to accommodate the schedules of working professionals. Live classes may meet in the evenings or on weekends – usually just once per week. Hybrid MBA and online MBA students spend the same amount of time studying and preparing for classes as students in traditional MBA programs, but they have more control over when and where they complete schoolwork. Additionally, distance learners can apply what they learn in their online classes in their professional lives in real time, which means online MBA programs have a more immediate impact on student careers.

Many on-campus programs hold classes twice weekly during business hours and expect students to meet in person to complete project work. Additionally, full-time students in MBA programs may need to fulfill residency requirements or fall- and spring-semester internship requirements to graduate.

Are You Hoping to Complete a Summer Internship?

Full-time MBA programs often include internship components, while part-time MBA programs (delivered online or otherwise) are less likely to require students to complete internships. Traditionally, internships represented a chance for early career MBA candidates to apply their emerging skills in real-world settings, grow their networks and get a feel for working in different segments of the business ecosystem. Internships were also a way for professionals to connect with new employers or gain a foothold in new industries.

Online programs cannot fully replicate the full-time internship experience. However, programs such as SMU’s Online MBA and MBA Direct do attract applicants who want to change employers, roles and industries. Students pursuing MBAs online make the same kinds of valuable connections during global immersions, honing the skills they learned in online courses while working on teams to address real-world challenges. Experience plus robust pre- and post-graduation career support smooth career transitions in much the same way internships do. Approximately 80 percent of SMU Cox Online MBA graduates seek new career opportunities once they complete the program.

Do You Want to Skip the GMAT?

Traditional MBA programs often require applicants to submit standardized test scores from exams such as the GMAT or GRE when applying. Online masters programs may be more likely to waive this requirement. Do not mistakenly assume a correlation between program quality and standardized testing requirements. There are GMAT-optional MBA programs at top business schools. Similarly, do not assume that acing the GMAT is a necessary precursor to launching a long and lucrative career. While standardized test scores serve as an additional metric admissions committees can use when evaluating applications, they cannot predict career success.

Online MBA vs. a Traditional MBA: Which Is Better For You?

Only you can answer this question. By now, you should have a more thorough understanding of which MBA program format best suits your needs. Maybe you have realized that online learning is not for you because you are the kind of person who needs that face-to-face connection to do your best work. Or perhaps you now feel much more confident that an online degree program will help you meet your professional and personal goals. In that case, your next step will be to choose the business school with the online program that will support your ambitions.

Whether you’ve recently graduated college and your career is in its early days, or you have years of experience but want to advance more quickly, SMU has an online MBA program for you whether you're in the Dallas area or not. The Cox School of Business online MBA curriculum takes the best features of the on-campus Master of Business Administration program and delivers them virtually to create a cutting-edge business school experience.

Visit SMU Cox Admissions to learn more, connect with an enrollment advisor or start your application today.