Online or on-campus: Weighing the pros and cons for a business analytics graduate degree

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BY Sydney LakeJanuary 24, 2022, 4:02 PM

A view of the Cornell Tech Campus at Roosevelt Island in New York City, as seen in March 2021. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

Online master’s programs have been around for several years, though the pandemic pushed even more universities to expand their virtual offerings to match the trending remote workforce. By 2025, an estimated 36.2 million Americans will constitute the virtual workforce, an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels, according to Upwork’s 2020 Future Workforce Pulse Report. 

Business schools have already started adapting. The University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which Fortune ranks as the No. 12 program in the country, in August 2021 announced a flex MBA program in which courses will be offered both online and on campus, and Howard University (ranked No. 30) grew its business school by launching an online part-time MBA program and online executive MBA program. Overall, 30% of online MBA programs reported an increase in applications in the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2021 Application Trends Survey.

Similarly, many master’s in business analytics programs are also offering both an online format and a more traditional, on-campus option.

Carnegie Mellon University offers an online business analytics master’s program and is getting ready to launch its residential program in the fall of 2022. Willem-Jan van Hoeve, professor of operations research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, anticipates that younger candidates with less experience will likely be drawn to the residential program since they have the flexibility to move around and will more quickly be able to make their next career jump.

“That I think is the most important distinguishing factor: time,” van Hoeve says of making the choice between a residential or virtual program. “Where you are in your career and your life.”

Fortune has rounded up other considerations to make when evaluating a business analytics master’s program—and whether an in-person versus online experience is best for you.

Time and financial commitment

Online business analytics master’s programs typically take about 16 months to two years to complete since they’re targeted toward working professionals who want to attend school part-time. Residential programs, on the other hand, are more likely full-time programs that can be completed in one year or less. 

At Carnegie Mellon, the program’s online students are almost all employed and are looking to do school part-time, while van Hoeve anticipates that the residential program will attract more early-career applicants who can afford the time to commit nine months to learning while being out of work. 

An online program also allows students to continue to work while studying, which can eliminate some of the financial burden of earning a master’s degree, says Vishal Gaur, the program director of Cornell University’s business analytics masters at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. The drawback of the online program from a time-commitment standpoint is that it takes longer to complete than a residential program, Gaur says. Cornell’s program requires about 20 hours of academic work per week, he says. 

“Financially, it is attractive because students aren’t required to leave their jobs and relocate,” he tells Fortune. “Moreover, they can study on their own schedule depending on work commitments and time zones as long as they allocate sufficient time to coursework each week.”

Texas A&M University, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 1 online master’s in business analytics, costs $65,000 to complete. By comparison, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, which Fortune ranks as being one of the top business schools in the country, offers an in-person business analytics program that costs $63,250.

Curriculum

Schools that offer both an online and residential option tend to offer the exact same curriculum across mediums.

When creating the curriculum, Cornell staff interviewed industry practitioners to design the program based on business’ needs, Gaur says. What did they learn? “That businesses need analytics professionals who possess analytics skills, knowledge of business to ask the right questions, and communication skills to convert analysis into business logic.”

A key difference between the two formats, however, is experiential learning opportunities—especially if you choose an online program. 

Carnegie Mellon’s online program includes a capstone project in which students work on a business analytics project with an outside company, while the residential program will offer several experiential learning courses each semester. 

At Cornell, online students have two residential modules in which students visit the school’s two campuses for in-person learning. 

“In the first module at our Ithaca campus, students will take a course on teamwork and collaboration and work face-to-face with faculty,” Gaur says. “In the second module at our Cornell Tech campus in New York City, they will work in teams on their capstone project.” Cornell’s program also offers both live (synchronous) classes and recorded (asynchronous) classes.

Career outcomes

Because curriculum and experiential learning opportunities tend to be identical or equitable, business analytics programs find that students have similar career outcomes following the completion of the program. 

Ultimately, students should leave a business analytics program with both a technical skill set necessary to understand data—but also the business chops to make sense of it and use it to make management decisions. 

“I think many [students] didn’t realize how much we are focused also on the implementation—the management issues that come with implementing decisions that come out of analytical processes,” van Hoeve says. “Sometimes that’s an eye-opener and that allows them to—beyond just the technical skill set—say, ‘Maybe I can take the next step in my career to a higher-level position.’”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programsdata science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.

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