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Online education is a fast-evolving market: the past few years have seen several business schools create purely online MBAs.

So it is surprising that little has changed at the top of the FT’s online education ranking for 2019.

Warwick Business School retains the number one slot this year for the best online MBA, partly on the strength of its faculty, but also its value for money and its graduates’ career progression.

The growth in online education is reflected in the rankings with the arrival of the MBA@UNC programme, created by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, at number five on the list. This course started as recently as July 2011 and has risen quickly through the ranks.

The key factors that decide the top 10 online MBAs are the career progress of alumni, the diversity of the cohort and the quality of online delivery. The two main criteria for career progress, as for the FT’s global MBA ranking, are alumni salaries three years after graduation and the percentage rise in salary.

Average salaries for the top online courses are comparable to those on the FT’s ranking of full-time, campus MBAs. The average salary across all online courses on this list is $148,742. This is not far off the $189,975 average for the top 10 full-time MBAs in the 2019 global ranking.

Warwick Business School’s alumni salary for their online MBA is particularly strong. Its online graduates earn $214,141 on average, compared with $118,406 for its full-time MBA ranking. This is partly due to the school’s strong reputation, but also because students on its online course tend to be older, have enjoyed more career progression and earn more than their full-time peers.

There is a difference in the way the percentage increase in salary is calculated. For online MBAs, we use alumni salaries on graduation as the base, as opposed to full-time MBAs, for which the pre-MBA salary is the base. Despite this, we can draw some interesting comparisons.

The big difference between online and full-time study is the salary increase. The average rise across the online courses is 32.1 per cent, compared with 119.5 per cent for the top 10 full-time MBAs in the 2019 global ranking.

This is due to student demographics. Full-time MBA students tend to be in their late 20s and at a point in their career where they enjoy rapid promotion. There is much more scope for them to increase their earnings after their MBA. Online MBA students, on the other hand, are more likely to be in their mid-30s and to switch careers after graduating. This means their salary is more likely to plateau — or even decrease — after the course.

The ranking also highlights a common misunderstanding about online MBA courses. Many people think that they attract more international students compared with full-time courses because they can be studied anywhere.

The data suggests this is incorrect. The average percentage of overseas students at the five US schools in this year’s online MBA list is just 6.8 per cent. This contrasts to an average of 42.7 per cent for the seven US schools in the top 10 of the full-time MBA ranking. This suggests that in-person networking remains key for full-time MBA students.

Key to the table

  • Weighting percentages shown in brackets.
  • For the three gender-related criteria, schools that have 50:50 (male: female) composition receive the highest score.

Salary today US$ (20): average alumni salary three years after graduation, $ PPP equivalent (see methodology).†

Salary increase (10): percentage increase in alumni salary in the current job versus three years ago on graduation. †

Value for money (3): calculated according to alumni’s salary, fees and other costs.†

Career progress (4): progression in the alumni’s seniority and the size of company they now work for, versus three years ago on graduation.†

Aims achieved (4): the extent to which alumni fulfilled their goals for taking an online MBA.†

Careers service (4): the effectiveness of the school’s careers service in terms of career counselling, personal development, networking events and recruitment, as rated by the school’s alumni.†

Programme delivery (5): how alumni rate the online delivery of live teaching, other teaching materials and online exams.†

Online interaction (10): how alumni rate the interaction between students, teamwork and the availability of faculty.†

Female faculty (3): percentage of female members of faculty.

Female students (3): percentage of female students on the MBA programme.

Women on board (1): percentage of female members on the school’s advisory board.

International faculty (4): percentage of faculty whose citizenship differs from their country of employment.

International students (4): percentage of current students whose citizenship differs from the country the school is located in.

International board (2): percentage of the board whose citizenship differs from the country in which the business school is situated.

International mobility (5): based on alumni citizenship and the countries where they worked before their MBA, on graduation and three years after graduation.†

Faculty with doctorates (5): percentage of full-time faculty with a doctoral degree.

Corporate social responsibility (3): proportion of credits from core courses dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues.

FT research rank (10): calculated according to number of articles published by a school’s current, full-time faculty members in 50 academic and practitioner journals between January 2016 and December 2018. Rank combines absolute number of publications, with the number weighted relative to the faculty’s size.

† Includes data for the class of 2015 and one or two preceding classes where available.

Methodology: How the Online MBA 2019 ranking is compiled

This is the sixth annual edition of the Financial Times ranking of the best online MBA programmes worldwide. A total of 22 schools took part in the 2019 edition.

All participating business schools must meet the FT’s strict entry criteria: the school must be internationally accredited; programmes must have run for four consecutive years; and at least 70 per cent of the course content must be delivered online. The students must also pass a selection process before enrolling on the course and an examination before graduating. 

Data was collected through two online surveys — the first was completed by participating schools and the second by their alumni who graduated in 2015. Some 584 of them completed our questionnaire — a response rate of about 18 per cent. 

The ranking has 18 criteria. Alumni responses inform nine criteria that together contribute 65 per cent of the total weight. Another eight criteria are based on the school data, accounting for 25 per cent. The remaining criterion, the research rank, counts for 10 per cent. 

Alumni-informed criteria 

Alumni-informed criteria are based on data collected in the past three years. Responses from the 2019 survey carry 50 per cent of the total weight, while responses from 2018 and 2017 account for 25 per cent each. 

If only two years’ data are available, we weight the data differently: 

If data is only available from 2019 and 2018, the weighting is split 60:40 

If only two years’ data is available from 2019 and 2017, the weighting is split 70:30 

For salary figures, the weighting is split 50:50. 

The first two alumni criteria are average income three years after graduation and the salary increase compared with pay on graduation, with respective weights of 20 per cent and 10 per cent. For pay on graduation, half of the weight applies to the absolute increase and half to the percentage increase. Salaries are converted to US dollars using the International Monetary Fund purchasing power parity rates published in October 2018. 

The salaries of non-profit and public sector workers and full-time students are removed. This is because they are the highest and lowest salaries for each school so removing them allows us to calculate a normalised average. Finally, salaries are weighted to reflect differences between industry sectors. 

“Value for money” for each school is calculated by dividing average alumni salary three years after graduation by the programme’s total cost, including tuition fees and other expenses. Any financial help given to alumni is subtracted from the total cost. 

Business school criteria 

School criteria include the diversity of staff, board members and students by gender, nationality and the online MBA’s international reach. For gender criteria, schools with a 50:50 composition score highest. 

The FT has removed the PhD graduates category from the criteria and replaced it with a new criterion: corporate social responsibility (CSR). The CSR rating is based on the proportion of credits from core courses that are dedicated to CSR, ethics, social and environmental issues. This carries a weight of three per cent, and the remaining weighting has been redistributed to the female faculty and female students categories. 

Research rank 

The research rank is based on the number of articles by full-time faculty members in 50 internationally recognised academic and practitioner journals. The rank combines the number of publications from January 2016 to December 2018, with the figure weighted relative to the size of the faculty. 

The Online MBA ranking is a relative listing where schools are ranked against each other. We do this by calculating a Z-score for each school under each criterion. This score shows where the school lies in relation to the average. These are then weighted, as outlined in the ranking key, and added together for a final score. 

After removing the schools that did not meet the response rate threshold from the alumni survey, a first version is calculated using all remaining schools. The school at the bottom is removed and a second version is calculated, and so on until the top 10 have been identified. The top 10 schools are ranked accordingly to produce the 2019 list. 

Judith Pizer of Jeff Head Associates acted as the FT’s database consultant. The FT research rank was calculated using Clarivate Analytics data from the Web of Science, an abstract and citation database of research literature.

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