What does the future online MBA look like? Reflections from GMAC’s Annual Conference


Tim Landucci, Business School Marketing Consultant, SMRS


I spent a really valuable few days in San Diego for GMAC’s Annual Conference with 650 business school professionals from across the globe. It’s rare to have the opportunity to immerse yourself in topics like leadership, online learning, stackable provision, ESG and the latest thinking in marketing and recruitment, but I was fortunate to be able to do this and listen to an incredible range of speakers, as well as enjoy a stunning city.

I was primarily at GMAC to deliver a session on the future of the online MBA. This is our latest syndicated research study looking at 18 global business schools, and I presented some of the initial findings. I was delighted to be joined by my colleague Aimee Kleinman, Jason Lawrence from GMAC, who partnered with us on this study and Mette Cameron from the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Our study includes a sample of 2,000 responses from online MBA prospects, current students and alumni. We also have feedback from employers and participating Business School online learning teams. We only finished the analysis about 2 weeks ago and needed to unpick some of the key themes from the research which we felt would be most relevant and interesting to our audience at GMAC.

In the end, we decided to pull out the following six themes:


1. Students are looking for different types of flexibility

The type of flexibility most desired by our sample was the variety of module choices available and pricing flexibility. However, many want the flexibility to change the pace of their study, either to pause their study and pick up later or on the flip slide, complete it more quickly. And over half of our prospective students cite a preference for a one-year programme.


“With candidates expressing increased interest in flexibility, business schools are needing to become more adaptive in modes of study. As such, they are increasingly working to support candidates’ needs on a personal and professional level by allowing them to select from a range of offerings and delivery modes. Additionally, they are looking for programs that match their current lifestyle and professional situation, whilst allowing for potential future adjustments to study.”

Jason Lawrence, Director, Online Programmes, GMAC


2. Different segments have differing motivations

Improving career prospects and enhancing professional skills development came out as the top two motivations. However, there are some variances between the different audience groups when it comes to the third and fourth motivations. For the alumni, it’s more about the enjoyment of learning and pursuing subject areas of interest. For current students, it’s to earn a better salary, but most strikingly, for prospects, it’s to make a positive difference in society. This is a distinct change from our previous research and might reflect a broadening group of entrepreneurs, perhaps those wanting to establish social ventures and those looking to innovate products and services and be more sustainable and conscious about their work. It could also be a result of a change in mindset post-pandemic.


“We are finding that the key motivations for pursuing an MBA continue to centre around career progression and professional development. However, in line with the research, we are finding that more prospective students are also wanting to make a positive difference in society. I think we have all reflected on what is important to us after having lived through a global pandemic.”

Mette Cameron, Director of Marketing and Business Development, University of Edinburgh Business School


3. Emerging subject areas have strong appeal

The fundamentals are present here – business and management, finance and economics are key areas of preference. However, where we’re seeing a change is in a stronger view that areas like project management, digital transformation, ESG, AI, data analytics and M&A should feature more strongly in online MBA programmes. This also resonated across a number of other sessions at AMBA.


4. Alumni and careers offerings are unclear

A quarter of current students and alumni were unsure or unaware if their institution had an alumni offering. We know how valuable alumni communities are for advocacy, referrals, giving and broader lifelong learning, so this feels like a missed opportunity. On the careers side, there are high levels of indifference towards the provision available.


5. Prospects and pricing

We discovered some variances in perceptions towards pricing. We used a price sensitivity model to find different averages of what our sample would be willing to spend. While there was little variance with current students and alumni, we did see a change with our prospects sample. Firstly, potential students highlight a point of marginal cheapness around 45% lower than alumni and 37% lower than current students. And the point of marginal expensiveness for potential students is around 25% lower than alumni and current students.

What we think this suggests, is that prospective students have a lower bracket when it comes to pricing expectations. This might mean that potential students consider a wider range of programmes at different price points.


6. Location matters

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, across the entire sample of 2,000 respondents, more than 50% highlight that location is an important factor in their decision-making, and especially important for those in the UK and Europe. This may feel counter-intuitive, but being able to attend events, feel part of a community and enjoy a campus experience are the key reasons cited. It was also a key feature of the research we did last year. For those who said location didn’t matter, reputation came first, but overall, what this tells us, is that highlighting location, especially in the UK and Europe could enhance appeal to a large number of your prospective audiences.

It was exciting to share these initial findings with senior marketing professionals from a huge range of global business schools. We had some really good feedback from the audience and also some powerful reflections around student expectations. It’s made me think about how business schools can balance the growing demands for greater flexibility with internal challenges and limitations.

To download our white paper on ‘Shaping the Future online MBA’, or purchase the full report, please CLICK HERE.


Tim Landucci