Should You Take a Lockstep or Self-Paced Program

An MBA degree can provide a significant boost to your career and your earnings. The average MBA graduate of a US business school will receive a starting salary of US$110,000, according to the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), administrators of the GMAT entrance exam.

Those who qualify for admission – usually in their late 20s and early 30s – often find the initial financial commitment extreme, however. A two-year MBA degree, the dominant format in the US, can set you back over US$200,000, and will require you to put your career and earnings on hold for the duration of the course. Those who balk at the cost might consider a part-time MBA program, which will let you work full-time, while studying on the side.

There are two types of part-time MBA. Self-paced programs let you choose when and what you study at any given point. Lock-step MBAs require that students follow the same curriculum simultaneously, such as the Professional MBA at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – an online program with face-to-face elements. Students begin the Professional MBA at the same time and advance through the 72-hour syllabus together, over two years. Online courses are in the summer and classes in spring and fall are on campus, on Monday and Wednesday evenings.

Both formats are demanding, which can show a potential employer or your current boss that you are good at managing several tasks at once – an important skill in any profession – and, of course, your commitment to acquiring new skills and advancing your career.

Each format offers distinct upsides. For example, students on self-paced courses can tailor the curriculum to their own schedule. They get the same MBA degree, but put in the leg work on their own terms – the Online [email protected] at the Kenan-Flagler Business School lets students learn anytime when it’s convenient for them, and from anywhere, provided there is an internet connection. In short, it offers huge flexibility.

Self-paced MBAs can also opt to follow specialized tracks, as with any other format. The 18-to-36-month [email protected] builds foundational skills such as strategic leadership, but students can develop industry-specific expertise by studying one of eight specialized concentrations, including sustainable enterprise, data analytics and entrepreneurship.

Another upside is that employers may be more willing to wholly or partially fund the cost of tuition, as you can better fit study around the demands of the workplace, and you can apply what you learn directly, often from a distance, using technology.

David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at London’s Imperial College Business School, says that studying part-time and online can be better preparation for working lives today: “If you run your own business, you have remote workers and clients,” he says. “If you work for a multinational, working across geographies is very normal. Full-time, face-to-face learning is not a necessity anymore.”

The flexibility comes at a cost, however. Self-paced students often lose out on the close connections students develop while rubbing shoulders on campus, which is what you get on a lockstep MBA. A strong bond with classmates can come in handy when graduates are seeking new employment, a promotion, or someone to fill a role. The network effect of any format of MBA is among the most cherished benefits.

At the Wisconsin School of Business, Evening MBA (lockstep) students join a global networkof more than 41,800 on graduation. And the school claims that nearly 90% of Evening MBA graduates advance in their careers, and achieve an average salary increase of 39%. Alumni network benefits apply equally, of course, to those on self-paced programs, even while cohort networking opportunities do not.

Sharing the same syllabus enables team-based learning, with students drawing upon and learning from a cohort with a diverse range of academic, professional and cultural backgrounds (that diversity may be higher on courses with online elements, which are opened up to a cross-continental cohort).

Eric Fang, professor of business administration at Wisconsin, says: “We put MBA students in constant contact with a rich range of people. In a world that’s increasingly flat, there is tremendous value to a future business leader in being educated in this way – as one of the people, not fenced-off.”

The school’s Evening MBA students take a 10-day international trip to learn from senior leaders of multinational and domestic businesses, trade groups and government ministries. This type of ‘experiential’ learning is widely regarded to be effective practice for management, because it replicates real life more closely than theoretical case studies, which are widely used on MBAs.

Students see downsides to part-time MBAs, of course. Applications to part-time, self-paced and other generally flexible MBAs have fallen: approximately one-third of these programs reported application growth in 2017, while just over half reported declines, according to GMAC.

They may not be as concentrated as the full-time version, but they are just as challenging. Participants will need to muster the motivation to study a complex core curriculum of finance, marketing, et al after a full day’s work. Staying focused for a long period of time can be difficult, and should your professional or personal circumstances change, you may struggle to keep up with the course load and attending classes on campus.

Peter Fleming, professor of business and society at Cass Business School in London, advises that students seek help from their academic tutors when the going gets tough.

“A part-time MBA is very intense given the compacted nature of the program,” he says. “It’s important to ensure that students are engaged with the learning objectives. The question is not about focus – students on part-time and full-time programs are all very focused – but how that focus is managed and organized to encourage the best learning outcomes.”

The bottom line is: if you do not want to quit your job and forgo potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, any format of part-time study is a great option for getting an MBA on your own terms.