Mark Green was anxious about getting into the online MBA program at Marylhurst University.
The 47-year-old Louisiana resident had GMAT scores that were solid, but not excellent, and an undergraduate degree that had nothing to do with business.
But as stressed as he was, he says he would have been far more worried had he tried to apply to an in-person, full-time MBA program.
"The perception is full-time programs are a bit more stringent," says Green, who graduated from Marylhurst in 2012. "I think it's easier to get into an online program. I think they are targeting themselves more to an adult learner."
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Online programs have a variety of benefits for students like Green. They provide the flexibility to work and maintain family commitments during school and give students access to a network of professionally established classmates.
And there's another, rarely mentioned benefit: They may be easier for adult learners to get into.
At the top 10 full-time face-to-face MBA programs ranked by U.S. News, the average acceptance rate for the fall entering class of 2012 was 19 percent. At the 10 highest ranked business schools with online MBA programs, the average acceptance rate for 2012 was 64 percent.
The trend seems to extend beyond the top programs, according to a September 2012 report by the Graduate Management Admission Council, the nonprofit organization of management schools behind the GMAT.
The 29 online MBA programs that participated in the survey were expected to have a median acceptance rate of 82 percent in 2012, compared with a median 45 percent acceptance rate at the 145 participating full-time, two-year MBA programs in the same year, the report found.
"Typically the full-time programs are a little more selective," says Larry Chasteen, assistant dean and director of the online MBA program at the University of Texas—Dallas, one of the top 10 programs of its kind. "They require a higher GMAT because they are only selecting a limited number of students."
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While a full-time, in-person program may only accept 50 or 60 students, online programs can often enroll hundreds of students at a time, Chasteen says. In some cases, schools enroll as many students as they'd like.
"Full-time, on-site MBA programs often have limited space capacity and designated faculty," Susan C. Aldridge, senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said via email. "In an online environment, additional sections can be easily added, faculty can be recruited globally, and it's easier to scale the volume increase than in a traditional classroom-based environment."
Although admissions officials often say their online MBA programs have the same standards as their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they are quick to point out that the programs attract different kinds of candidates with unique strengths.
In a traditional full-time program, applicants tend to be younger and recently out of college, says Philip T. Powell, faculty chair of the online MBA program at Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business. With those students, factors such as undergraduate grade point average and GMAT score tend to be given more weight, particularly since there is little else to go by, he says.
Applicants to online MBA programs tend to be older – the average age of new students applying to online business programs ranked by U.S. News is 33. For those candidates, impressive professional accomplishments can sometimes make up for average or lackluster academic credentials, admissions officials say. In fact, of the 191 online business schools ranked by U.S. News, 42 percent of the programs don't require any standardized test scores.
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"People will score better while they are in school and after up to five years," says Cheryl Oliver, assistant dean for graduate and online programs at the Washington State University College of Business, which has the top-rated online MBA program in the country. "In online learning, when we are looking at people who have been out seven or eight or nine years, we know that might not be the best measurement for that learner."