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Weigh Costs of Part-Time and Full-Time M.B.A. Programs

The major difference is often not in what you pay, but how.

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When 47-year-old Barbara Murin wanted to enhance the varied business skills she's honed working in banking and at a nonprofit with an M.B.A., her decision whether to go to school full or part time rested on one important factor: money. 

"I think it does come down to the financing: How are you going to do it?" says Murin, who's now enrolled part time at the University at Albany—SUNY School of Business. "For me, it was driven by this: I needed to work; I wasn't in the position where I couldn't be working. You just have to look at the financial aspects of it." 

A choice like Murin's is quite common: Among the 136 business schools ranked by U.S. News, 41,403 students were enrolled part-time at the 103 institutions that offered the program option in 2011, compared to 35,978 full-time M.B.A. students. While part-time M.B.A. programs often share faculty and curricula with their full-time counterparts, the two business school options can differ in several financial aspects. 

[See three reasons why students choose part-time M.B.A. programs.] 

First is total cost, which can be higher for part-time programs. Since many (though not all) part-time programs take longer than full-time programs to complete, students may end up paying more in the long run for school fees. At the University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business, for instance, the part-time program ultimately costs about $3,000 more in fees than the otherwise similar full-time program, Dean Latha Ramchand estimates. 

But the way a part-time student pays for an M.B.A.—often per credit while still earning a salary, as opposed to a lump sum when you're likely not working—offers a "less financially frantic approach" to funding, according to Robert Preziosi, a professor at the Nova Southeastern University H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship. 

"I think whatever your situation—you've got your own money; you're borrowing money from your folks; you're trying to get a loan—if you extend the need for that money along a longer period of time, you're not killing yourself emotionally by trying to get your arms around that money," Preziosi says. "Instead of driving yourself crazy trying to get some funds, you go at an easier pace." 

But while program costs can be higher, the opportunity cost of continuing to work while earning an M.B.A. sways in favor of a part-time program, according to financial adviser Jason Close of Capelli Financial Services, Inc., based in Michigan. 

"The sleeper cost is lost income over the years," Close notes. For a student who takes about two years off from earning, say, a $60,000 a year salary to go to school full time, "That's a pretty big expense in terms of lost income," he says. 

[Get tips on paying for business school.] 

But despite the cost benefits of a part-time M.B.A. program, the option might not be the most ideal choice for all candidates, school officials say. A young student without much work experience might benefit more in being fully immersed in a business administration program, says University at Albany—SUNY School of Business Dean Don Siegel. 

A working professional looking to make a drastic career change to fields such as investment banking or brand management might need the summer work experience folded into a full-time program, according to Julie Barefoot, associate dean of M.B.A. admissions at the Emory University Goizueta Business School.

And someone with a pressing job offer that's contingent on quickly earning an M.B.A. may be better suited for a full-time, accelerated program, Nova Southeastern's Preziosi says. 

Even for M.B.A. candidates for whom a part-time program makes the most sense, there are potential issues beyond finances to consider. For part-time Pace University Lubin School of Business student Saj Sahni, balancing his responsibilities poses daily challenges, he says. 

"It's really difficult with the workload and your deadlines at work and trying to balance your school work," says Sahni, who squeezes in homework during lunch breaks at Morgan Stanley. "It's tough, but you have to do it for the short run."