Which Online MBA Program Is Right for Me?

After finding your footing in the workforce, you’re ready to go back to school. But unlike with your bachelor’s degree, you’re not quite in a position to put your life on hold and head to campus five days a week to continue your education. That’s why many business professionals choose distance learning, which offers greater access to their desired programs without requiring relocation.

Whether online or on-campus, earning a Master of Business Administration (MBA) is a demanding yet rewarding experience, and such advanced learning can help define the future of your professional career. To help you parse through the options, here’s an overview of what to know about online MBA degrees, including the program, coursework and curriculum factors that can help you decide which learning track may be right for you.

Benefits of an Online MBA Degree

Prospective students wondering “which MBA program is right for me” should know all online MBA programs and specialties have their particular nuances. Knowing these nuances can help you make an informed decision about your higher education opportunities. When you’re ready to advance your business acumen, here’s what you need to know about online master’s degree programs.

You’ll Gain Tools to Advance or Switch Your Career Path

An online MBA degree can lead to advanced professional development, both for students who wish to enhance their knowledge within their current industry as well as those who are interested in switching career paths.

In fact, The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) — provider of the GMAT exam — in 2018 surveyed  10,882 graduate school alumni about their post-MBA careers. The survey found that 70% of alumni said they could not have landed their current job without their degree. Furthermore, 74% agreed that their schooling prepared them to work in culturally diverse organizations, and 70% of alumni said their education prepared them to grow a business in international markets.

The 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey also found the vast majority of business school alumni are employed, with 79% working for a company and 10% serving as self-employed entrepreneurs. Of those working for companies, 61% work for multinational organizations, 33% for companies with more than 25,000 employees and 8% at start-ups.

Of those surveyed in 2018, 87% felt their graduate management education accelerated their career advancement, especially when compared to their peers who did not have an MBA. According to the survey, nearly half (49%) of recent alumni secured mid-level positions and were on the track to holding senior, executive or c-suite positions a few years after earning the advanced degree.

As such, graduates can expect positive professional outcomes from earning a master’s degree. Many students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business secure new positions before they finish their coursework, which was the case for 58% of the school’s Online MBA graduates surveyed in 2018 .

Students gain versatile business decision-making knowledge, financial management expertise and leadership skills during the MBA experience, which can open doors to various managerial, executive and refined applications. Elective courses and specialized tracks can further enhance specific abilities for students who have a particular career path or industry in mind.

Pursuing an online MBA degree from a college of business allows students to keep their current positions while attending graduate school, which is beneficial for those who wish to advance their careers within the same industry. For professionals looking to switch career paths, the ability to continue full-time work can at least help with the financial aspects of the degree

You Can Take Rigorous Classes From Anywhere

When exploring which MBA program is right for you, you should know that misperceptions about online degree programs may lead some to believe that online courses are easier than their on-campus counterparts. However, both learning formats award the same degrees with comparable workloads and curriculum. Online MBA degrees provide students with a foundation of business concepts and abilities while further developing critical-thinking, decision-making and leadership skills.

The program differences arise in learning styles and interactions rather than the concepts or assignments covered during the coursework. Group projects and interactive discussions still take place in online degree programs, just through virtual tools like video conferencing and online messaging that facilitate the necessary collaboration.

For instance, the Online MBA program at the Smith School of Business offers the same rigorous and fulfilling coursework as the on-campus program. In fact, many of the professors who teach online courses also lead on-campus sessions with the same curriculum. Students also engage in two on-campus residencies, which solidify the connections made in the online environment with in-person interactions.

Online Colleges View Your Work Experience as a Positive Asset

The years you spend in the workforce after completing your bachelor’s degree can benefit you when you return to school. Most AACSB-accredited business schools prefer applicants who have professional work experience, with several programs tailored to students with a certain level of business knowledge from the start. Online MBA degrees are especially suited to working professionals, as the nature of an online program allows students to maintain their current positions while enrolled in the program.

What’s more, your work experience can help prepare you for an online master’s degree program, ensuring you have the necessary background in basic business decision-making, organizational behavior and strategic management to succeed in an advanced program. Your professional hands-on experiences will allow you to contribute an informed perspective to classroom discussions, adding to the rich learning environment that develops from a collection of students with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of experience.

Your peers will likely become close collaborators and networking resources throughout your MBA studies, and each of their individual business-related backgrounds will help augment your own knowledge. You can also apply the concepts covered in class to your previous experiences, which helps with comprehension and future applications.

As such, multiple years of working in a professional role can strengthen your application. Many MBA programs advise prospective students to work for a few years before they apply for graduate school. For instance, the Smith School of Business strongly prefers that applicants have work experience, with more than 95% of candidates having at least two years of work experience.

Consider the program’s recommendations as well as the student body to determine if your professional experience complements the community. While a diverse classroom is important, having too much or too little experience could hinder your ability to connect with peers and succeed in online master’s degree programs.

You’ll Enjoy Flexibility — With Certain Time Commitments

Flexibility is one of the main selling points that convince professionals to obtain an online MBA. Individuals trying to find the right fit for an MBA program often learn that online courses offer students a higher degree of convenience than learning in a traditional classroom setting. With a mix of asynchronous and synchronous learning, online coursework easily adapts to personal and professional schedules. This allows students to balance their higher education studies with other commitments and gives them the freedom to complete an advanced degree without relocating to be near a campus.

Flexible start dates can make it even more convenient for working professionals to pursue a degree, allowing them to choose a time that doesn’t conflict with the busiest seasons at work. Smith Online MBA students can choose to start the program in January, May or September.

However, it’s important to note that even with such flexibility, online learning still requires a time commitment. While you can pursue some aspects of online programs at your own pace, there are still curriculum specifics, coursework requirements, syllabi and timelines to follow. Most online assignments will have deadlines and set exam schedules will require you to be available for testing at certain times.

The Smith Online MBA program considers the benefits of self-paced learning and in-classroom attendance, which is why the program offers the best of both. Students can make in-person, real-time connections through required synchronous live sessions each week. Students are then free to complete the coursework at their own pace during the rest of the week. The two residencies at College Park, Maryland, further facilitate live conversation and networking skill development and give online students a touch of the campus experience. Smith students can earn their graduate degrees in as few as 24 months, but doing so, of course, requires completing each semester’s coursework.

Overall, the Smith Online MBA program allows students to enjoy greater scheduling freedom than a traditional MBA degree program without sacrificing the robust curriculum and major advantages of a standard college environment.

You’re Still Eligible to Apply for Financial Assistance and Federal Aid Programs

As an online MBA candidate, you’ll still be eligible for financial assistance and aid programs. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), for instance, is available regardless of applicant age, education level or enrollment status. The FAFSA should be your first port of call after submitting your graduate school applications. Be sure to check when submissions open and close, as early filers often receive the most aid.

You may also qualify for scholarships, although the specifics of each will vary. You can use CareerOneStop, a tool sponsored by the Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, to search for higher education scholarships, grants, fellowships and other forms of financial aid.

Some school programs may also reward their own merit-based scholarships, which you can connect with a college’s financial advisors to learn more about. The Smith School of Business, for example, offers financial awards to a select number of applicants based on scholastic merit, professional accomplishment and evidence of leadership.

When considering which MBA program is right for you, you should know that certain tax credits and deductions  can help with academic costs.

  • 529 College Savings Plan: This tax-friendly savings account is dedicated to college expenses.
  • Lifetime Learning Credit: Offered by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for qualified tuition and related higher education expenses, this credit allows eligible students to reduce their income tax statement by up to $2,000.
  • Student Loan Interest Deduction: Students with a modified adjusted gross income less than $80,000 can receive a deduction for paying interest on a student loan used for higher education. This deduction can decrease taxable income by up to $2,500.
  • Business Deduction for Work-Related Education: Employees who can itemize their deductions may be able to write off certain college fees as business expenses as long as they meet the IRS requirements.

For even more financial help, consider talking to your employer about a sponsorship program. While they may ask that you commit to working for the company for a designated period of time after graduation, your employer may be willing to fund aspects of your advanced education. The Smith School of Business holds corporate partnerships with specific organizations to offer reduced tuition and waived fees for full-time employees, so your company may already be on the list.

Steps to Choosing the Right MBA Program

Once you know that an online master’s degree is the right academic step for you, consider several factors when determining which college of business and online MBA program is a good fit for your learning style, academic needs and professional goals. The steps to choosing the right MBA program involve researching the following.

Step 1: Find Out if the School Is Accredited

National or regional accreditation is an important sign that the college and its graduate program meet the highest standards of quality and rigor. Not only is this essential for verifying a program’s credibility, it’s also important for students seeking financial aid, as only those enrolled in accredited schools are eligible for federal student loans and grants. A stamp of approval from the Association to Advance Collegiate School of Business (AACSB), for example, is one of the business school accreditations to trust.

Step 2: Research the School’s Reputation

Along with formal accreditation, there are other indicators of the credibility and quality of specific colleges of business or online programs. For instance, distinguished faculty generally translates to high-quality, fulfilling courses. Online MBA rankings also highlight the top options. For instance, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Smith School of Business No. 12  on its latest list of the best online MBA programs. The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek and Poets & Quants are other credible sources that provide business school reviews and recommendations.

Step 3: Learn More About Student Services and Resources

Make sure the college offers student support services, such as financial aid resources and career advisory centers, that are comparable to the on-campus versions. Access to faculty and the availability of tech support are especially important considerations for full-time students studying online.

Step 4: Gauge Community and Enrollment Statistics

Take a broad look at the school’s enrollment statistics, so you can gauge the type of professionals who generally attend the school’s online MBA program. What’s more, research the school’s alumni network and resources. These elements will help you determine if the program is a good cultural fit for your needs and preferences.

Step 5: Ask About the Program’s Average Completion Time

Consider how many years you can expect to dedicate to earning your online master’s degree through various programs. The average time it takes students to complete the degree may complement or hinder your schedule and preferences.

Online MBA Specializations You Can Choose From

Among the most important distinctions between different online MBA degrees — even within the same program — are the curriculum specializations that allow students to tailor their skills and knowledge to a specific business area of interest. The best online MBA programs provide students with foundational knowledge and leadership abilities while still catering to focused interests and aspirations.

The Smith School of Business offers foundational coursework that provides students with a working knowledge of business topics such as entrepreneurship, data analytics, strategic management, accounting, ethics, global economic environments, corporate financial management, operations, negotiations and more. Such well-rounded exposure to business decision-making concepts makes Smith graduates versatile leaders who can work across teams and departments.

From there, students can choose from four highly relevant specializations focused on the most important aspects of modern business: Finance, Information Systems and Business Analytics, Marketing, and Supply Chain Management. Students looking for the broadest MBA curriculum can also choose to enroll in the General Track. Here’s a look at the concepts covered in each of these specialized learning tracks.


If you’re drawn toward a career in finance, and you’re still trying to determine which MBA program is right for you, you may want to consider programs that offer a finance specialization. This specialization introduces students to money management in the modern business environment. The coursework focuses on corporate finance, financial restructuring and investing. The selective offerings within the finance specialization currently include:

  • Commercial Bank Management: Focuses on bank structure and regulation; governance, asset and liability management; and bank-related risks that affect financial institutions
  • Financial Restructuring: Examines multiple ways to increase value through corporate restructuring, such as mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs, carve-outs, leveraged buy-outs and bankruptcy restructurings
  • Applied Equity Analysis: Offers insight into analytical frameworks and valuation techniques related to asset management, corporate finance, financial journalism, financial market regulation, research, sales and trading via practical applications of course content

Graduates can complete the program with the ability to evaluate financial markets and risks, allowing them to lead organizational money matters with confident, strategic and numbers-driven decision making. As such, many Smith graduates who pursue the finance specialization fill roles such as financial analyst and corporate controller, eventually rising to managerial and executive positions. These leadership roles may include:

  • Portfolio manager
  • Director of investments
  • Director of finance
  • Director of financial planning and analysis
  • Vice president of finance
  • Chief financial officer

As with other specializations, the Finance track can equip you with the refined abilities to achieve a fruitful career in finance.

Information Systems and Business Analytics

With advanced abilities to collect massive amounts of data, organizations need employees who can translate the numbers into valuable insights and meaningful conclusions. Designed with this increasing necessity to gather and interpret key information with speed and precision, the Information Systems and Business Analytics specialization exposes students to data management and analysis. Upon completing the coursework, graduates can understand how to implement proper information systems in various business settings.

The coursework includes the following selective courses.

  • Data Mining and Predictive Analytics: Introduces students to data analysis tools and techniques, with a focus on descriptive and predictive analytics and business applications in marketing, finance, health care and operations
  • Social Media and Web Analytics: Covers concepts and principles related to online platforms, social media and web analytics, as well as the business opportunities and challenges associated with such technologies
  • Managing Digital Businesses and Platforms: Examines digital businesses with a particular focus on what makes them unique and how leaders can best manage them

The skills and knowledge gained through this focused learning track are especially applicable in roles such as:

  • Data scientist
  • Quantitative analyst
  • Operations research analyst
  • Market research analyst
  • Business intelligence analyst
  • Applications architect
  • Business analyst manager
  • Chief operations officer

Big data is at the heart of the modern business world, and organizations want innovative, capable employees to keep them ahead of the curve. If you have an interest in the analytics side of business, earning an MBA degree with a focus on the latest concepts and tools can give your resume a boost within a competitive market.


Designed for professionals with a passion for the marketing side of business, this specialized track explores the latest topics and tools. This includes data-driven marketing strategy, brand management, consumer behavior and so on. Students who choose this specialization can not only build their expertise but also develop a portfolio of marketing skills and campaigns that apply across a variety of products, services, companies and industries.

Offerings within the marketing specialization currently include:

  • Consumer Behavior: Defines consumer behavior and highlights how marketing managers can utilize the information to develop effective strategies and campaigns
  • Co-Creating Customer Experience: Teaches students the dynamics and DNA of the customer experience, including how to design, implement and innovate customer experiences for better retention
  • Customer Equity Management: Examines the strategic and analytical aspects of customer equity, equipping students with a working knowledge of the important metrics and implementations in business-to-consumer and business-to-business environments
  • Marketing Analytics: Explores the marketing research process, the types of marketing data that exist, and information collection and analysis techniques

With strengthened skills and deeper marketing knowledge, Smith graduates can earn high-level positions, promotions and other professional opportunities. As such, earning an MBA with a marketing focus from an AACSB-accredited college of business often qualifies graduates for senior management and executive roles, including:

  • Brand manager
  • Digital marketing specialist
  • Product marketing manager
  • Strategic marketing director
  • Head of global content and digital marketing
  • Director of marketing and communications
  • Vice president of sales and marketing
  • Chief marketing officer

Marketing tools and techniques change rapidly, which is why developing your skills and knowledge through an online MBA degree while actively working in the field can be so advantageous. What’s more, the critical-thinking, business decision-making and data-driven decision-making skills you can gain during your studies will remain relevant for many years after you graduate.

Supply Chain Management

With a curriculum designed for the future of the industry, this specialization covers risk management, operational efficiency and innovation in the field. Students also learn how to work with cutting-edge supply chain technology applications, such as cloud-based programs like Resilinc and SAP.

The current supply chain management course offerings include:

  • Global Trade Logistics: Provides an in-depth view of logistics and supply chain issues related to import and export management from a global perspective
  • Supply Chain Risk Management: Displays how SCRM is key to organization resiliency, giving students the chance to develop skills in risk identification, assessment and mitigation, as well as work with industry-standard software to gather the necessary analytics
  • Innovative Solutions to Supply Chain Challenges: Utilizes computer simulations to allow students to address industry topics, collaboration strategies and intermodal operations in an interactive, illustrative way

With the skills to oversee business logistics, operations, sourcing and product development with confidence, graduates with a supply chain focus generally fill positions such as:

  • Supply chain specialist
  • Logistics analyst
  • Sourcing manager
  • Supply chain analytics manager
  • Product manager
  • Inventory manager
  • Director of operations
  • Director of supply chain management

If you have an interest in logistics and operations, this learning track can enable you to lead a successful career in the field.

General Track

Students who want a broad MBA experience can choose this track, which provides a more diverse understanding of various business concepts, such as financial management, organizational behavior, entrepreneurship and more. Rather than having part- or full-time students select courses in one focus area, they can pick and choose those that interest them most. As a result, students can learn about the core concepts of each focused learning track, from accounting and finance to supply chain management.

The cross-functionality of a general MBA degree is ideal for students who have an interest in honing their leadership abilities on a wide scale. With the varied skills and knowledge gained throughout the experience, students become well-rounded, multi-skilled business professionals who can work in multiple industries.

Median Salary for Online MBA Graduates

No matter which track meets your business interests, you can expect the same favorable outcomes that previous Smith graduates have achieved. According to data obtained from a 2018 survey, the average base compensation for Smith graduates was $98,629. Many accepted roles at major companies such as Under Armour, CSX, AT&T, Marriott and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Enrolling in an Online MBA Degree Program

Of course, the online master’s program you choose will have a significant impact on how fulfilling an MBA experience you receive. On your end, however, hard work, time commitment and effective time management will influence how much you can retain and apply from the learning experience. What’s more, developing a solid idea of your goals before enrolling will help you choose the right higher education program — and get the most out of your online experience.

As an AACSB-accredited school, the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business offers a flexible and engaging online MBA curriculum led by a distinguished faculty of accomplished business experts and respected industry thought leaders.

Through a combination of self-paced and experiential learning, you’ll hone your leadership abilities, develop high-level skills, understand how to make data-driven decisions and gain valuable expertise in essential areas of business, such as accounting, entrepreneurship, strategic management and more. It’s an online educational experience that’s made for ambitious, highly motivated professionals who are ready for more.

If you’re interested in joining the Smith Online MBA community, check out our program overview or call 877.807.8741 to connect with an advisor.

Recommended Readings

Why Get an MBA? It’s Still the Best Investment You Will Ever Make

5 Tips to Successfully Manage Working During MBA Studies

Why Should Your MBA Focus on Data?


CareerOneStop, Scholarship Finder

Graduate Management Admission Council, 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey

Internal Revenue Service, Tax Benefits for Education

U.S. News and World Report, Best Online MBA Programs