The CRAZY Best Online MBA Programs

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At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, No. 11 on Forbes’ most recent list of the nation’s top business schools, a two-year MBA costs $111,000 in tuition and fees. But the school now offers the same degree online, at a 13% discount ($97,000). According to a new list of the 25 top online MBA programs from test prep company Princeton Review, Kenan-Flagler is No. 1, with an average quantitative GRE score of 156 and a mean base salary for graduates of $112,000.

This is the first year Princeton Review has ranked online MBA programs. The motivation, says the company’s director of content development David Soto, is that the number of schools offering online MBAs is growing rapidly, from 68 schools in 2008 to 90 in 2012. As the online option becomes more accepted, greater numbers of students are taking advantage of the ability to keep working and earning while they study, and to avoid uprooting themselves to go to school far from home. “Students are reluctant to give up two years of salary to go to school,” says Soto, “and you can go to a great school, even a school across the world in Madrid. The online option is leveling the playing field for students who want flexibility.” The No. 3 school on Princeton Review’s list is IE University in Spain, which charges $58,320 for an online degree. The mean base salary for IE graduates is $113,800.

When Princeton Review asked students how they chose an online school, reputation was the top criterion. Then came convenience and in third place, field of study. I would have thought that cost would matter more, but it was the last item on students’ lists. Still, the cost savings at some schools is substantial. At Auburn University in Auburn, AL, an online MBA costs just $27,900, compared to an on-campus degree, which is $65,500.

Some other interesting statistics: 47% of the 2,000 online MBA students surveyed by Princeton Review were “career changers.” Some 42% of students surveyed at the top 25 schools said their employers were helping pay for their degree at an average of 61% of the degree cost. Also 44% of students said they got a promotion while earning their online MBA and their average base salary increase on completing the degree was 25%.

After Kenan-Flagler and ahead of IE University is the No. 2 school, Indiana University-Bloomington’s Kelley School of Business, which graduates students with a mean starting salary of $107,400. Kelley ranks at No. 19 on the Forbes list.

So far, none of the schools at the top of the Forbes list—Stanford, Chicago’s Booth school, Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg K +0.01%, Dartmouth’s Tuck school and Columbia, do not offer online degrees. To me, this is understandable, given the value of the connections students make with professors who have links to startup funding streams and established businesses, and the invaluable connections students make with other students who can become future business partners (and alumni donors). Example: Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp, Harvard business school chums and founders of successful five-year-old beauty subscription service Birchbox, which has raised more than $60 million in venture capital.

But Soto says 11 of the top 25 online schools require students to take part in at least one face-to-face immersion experience, and many of the online classes include real-time interactions like live chats. At UNC Chapel Hill, for instance, students must do two immersions. They can pick between international destinations like Mumbai where they attend three days of lectures with professors and business people, or San Francisco, where they can study either innovation and entrepreneurial thinking or data analytics and decision-making. But a brief immersion is obviously not the same as spending two years on campus with fellow students and professors. Still, for an increasing number of people who want business degrees but also want to hold onto their jobs and take advantage of their employers’ willingness to pay a share of tuition, while staying put in their communities, an online program is a compelling option.

Princeton Review based its ranking onsurveys it conducted during the 2014 academic year of students and administrators. It only looked at MBAs that offer at least 75% of their program of study online. It asked students about everything from their satisfaction with professors to the technology platform. Of the administration, it asked about topics ranging from admissions selectivity to the number of faculty members that have dedicated office hours for online MBA students. For the complete methodology, click here.