A man in a suit standing in the middle of his home-office setup, which appears to be inside a child’s playroom
Berkeley Haas Flex MBA student Thomas Seidl at his family home in Germany © Roderick Aichinger, for the FT

From his home in Munich, data science manager Thomas Seidl grappled with a dilemma common among ambitious professionals looking to get ahead in business: his desire for an MBA from a top US business school clashed with the practical challenges of uprooting his life and young family.

The solution came in the form of the “Flex MBA”, a part-time programme at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business that enables remote participation.

Flex MBA participants study online for the first half of the programme, with the option to attend in person or continue remotely thereafter. For Seidl, who is balancing family commitments and his role at Red Bull Soccer (which owns a global network of football clubs), this format enables him to pursue the MBA without relocating to the Bay Area.

“Most of the top-flight business schools are located in the US, but moving my wife and two young kids to California would have been a major disruption,” says Seidl. “The programme at Berkeley Haas was ideal because we did not have to rearrange our lives.”

Seidl’s experience is in line with a broader trend in business education: the blossoming interest in “flexible” MBA programmes, as demand for full-time courses weakens. Recent data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) shows an overall decline in MBA applications — after a pandemic-induced bump in 2020 — but, within that, an increase in students seeking flexible formats.

According to GMAC, total MBA applications decreased 4.9 per cent in 2023, on top of a 6.5 per cent drop the year before. But 60 per cent or more of MBAs offering online, hybrid, weekend and evening formats reported growth in applications. In contrast, only 41 per cent of full-time, residential MBA courses saw growth. This resilience can be attributed to factors including demand for work-life balance and the ability to maintain employment during studies.

“For the part-time MBA programme, we have an overwhelming demand,” says Jens Wüstemann, president of Mannheim Business School in Germany, pointing to economic factors. “That is driven by the fact that companies don’t want to lose their high-potential employees in a tight labour market.”

The flexibility offered by these programmes addresses the needs of working professionals, enabling them to pursue an MBA without disrupting their careers.

Another significant advantage of flexible MBAs is improved accessibility. By eliminating barriers associated with location, time constraints and rigid schedules, these programmes can make business education more inclusive for a broader range of professionals.

“We’re able to expand access to global markets that just don’t have that quality education,” says Ann Harrison, the dean of Berkeley Haas, citing the school’s Flex MBA. “We’ve never had a global footprint before. This is our way of establishing virtual outposts all over the world.”

Technology and innovative teaching methods play pivotal roles in the success of flexible MBAs. Online platforms, interactive sessions and collaborative tools engage participants, creating a more dynamic learning experience.

“There’s an increased appreciation for online pedagogy compared with 10 or 15 years ago,” says Norman Kurtis, dean of programmes at IE Business School in Madrid, which offers an online MBA alongside more traditional formats.

However, challenges accompany the benefits of flexible MBAs, such as maintaining self-discipline and balancing work and study commitments effectively. Seidl at Berkeley Haas, who tuned into some classes remotely in the early hours of the morning in Europe, acknowledges the toughness of the approach. “From the outside, it seems a bit crazy, but it’s doable — and rewarding,” he says.

Nevertheless, the growing preference for flexibility in business education has broader implications for the future of the MBA, especially for traditional full-time programmes. Schools note the varying objectives and profiles of part-time MBA applicants, who tend to be older, with more work experience and less interest in changing career direction. There is still a degree of competition between them for new students, however.

“There is a little bit of cannibalisation, there’s no question,” says Harrison. However, she points out that top-ranked schools such as Berkeley Haas continue to attract ample applications across the range of MBA programmes.

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Looking ahead, Yael Grushka-Cockayne, senior associate dean for professional degree programmes at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, anticipates stability in the full-time MBA market. But she adds: “I don’t think it will grow that much more. And we might see consolidation, with smaller and lower-ranked programmes shifting focus to flexible or online formats.”

Recognising this trend, Darden — itself highly ranked — launched a part-time MBA option in 2022, combining in-person and virtual classes. Grushka-Cockayne notes high application volume, but points to limitations, saying that face-to-face interactions can foster a strong sense of community and provide coveted networking opportunities.

“There is a limit to how much flexibility you can offer, as there is still a desire to get the in-person experience with faculty and fellow students,” she explains. “So a blended approach is probably the sweet spot.”

Traditional MBA programmes may also evolve to incorporate flexibility and meet the changing needs of prospective students. For instance, the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania introduced an accelerated version of its full-time MBA in December, designed for those who have had some business education and can complete the programme in 12 months (or 16 with a summer internship) instead of the usual 21.

“Flexibility is becoming more important for today’s students,” says Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Tepper School. “It is about having the opportunity to adapt education to your needs, as and when they change.” 

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