Why part-time MBAs are undervalued

Part-time MBAs are undervalued despite making a lot of sense

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Three cheers for the part-time MBA! It is not a refrain you are likely to hear every day, I have to admit. But why does the full-time MBA receive all the accolades while part-time programmes are met with a rather embarrassed silence, even though the degree received by graduates is often the same?

This might seem an odd thing to write about in a magazine dedicated to the full-time degree, but I think it is worth asking the question. Why has the part-time MBA always been the Cinderella of the MBA market, and can and should that change?

It strikes me there is a real case to answer here. For what everyone has learnt in the past decade is that the MBA market has to offer more flexibility to students; it has to make better use of technology; it has to be more affordable; and participants need the security of a job at the end of the process. A further point is that there are too few women on traditional MBA programmes, and there is evidence that part-time programmes might help redress that balance.

But the one thing that has convinced me the part-time MBA should be revisited is a comment I heard some years ago from Kim Clark, the former dean of Harvard Business School, whose MBA is ranked number one in the world by the FT this year. He said that students do not turn down a seat at HBS to go to another business school; they do so because they have great opportunities at work.

As economies recover around the world, this is clearly going to become a bigger problem, as corporations bid to retain talented staff. They may even be persuaded to sponsor part-time MBA students as part of that process.

Of course, this idea is not new. When the Fuqua school at Duke University in North Carolina launched its Cross-continent MBA more than a decade ago, the then dean Rex Adams described the part-time degree targeting managers in their late twenties as “hitting the sweet spot”.

There are other very successful part-time programmes out there, often called Executive MBAs, that cater to this market. At Iese Business School, for example, the average age of participants on the Madrid EMBA is 31 — similar to those studying on a full-time MBA at Insead. And whatever business school I talk to, from France to Australia, part-time and executive MBAs are booming, while full-time degrees flounder.

Of course, one of the biggest problems is that some of the most prestigious business schools — Harvard and Stanford are the most obvious examples — only teach the MBA in a two-year full-time format. But these two US schools are not the only two big brand name schools. If you go to China, the two big names are Tsinghua and Beida — or Peking University. And most of the students on the MBAs at those two universities study part-time, as is common in China.

So why are part-time degrees so disregarded? I think there are may be two reasons. First, part-time degrees tend to be local courses, taught in the evenings. But there is no reason at all why they cannot be taught in modules, in the same way as the top-notch EMBAs, in multiple locations. Fuqua has proven that.

Indeed, I can envisage a couple of enterprising business schools joining up to launch dual-city or even dual-country degrees. Why not a part-time degree taught alternate weekends in Chicago and New York? Or Paris and London?

The second thing is to do with branding. The power of the MBA is arguably because it is the best known degree brand in the world. But over the past few years, the EMBA has become a premium brand in its own right, largely due to the way it has been promoted by business schools.

Institutions such as London Business School, IE in Spain and Kellogg, at Northwestern University in the US, are now trying to perform the same marketing trick with the Master in Management degree, or MiM. So why not the part-time MBA?

Clearly the name is an issue — it needs a rebrand. Perhaps AMBA (alpha MBA) would work or MBA-HF (MBA for high-flyers). The potential list is endless.

Then of course, there is one final tried and tested way of ensuring premium status and high brand recognition, a tactic that worked so well in the EMBA market: put the price up.

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