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The internet is full of inspiring stories of visionary businessmen and women who made their fortune on nothing but their own brilliance and dedication – people who dropped out of school, failed miserably over and over, survived disasters and losses, and still came out on top, household names and admired by all.

The thing about those stories is, they’re compelling because they’re rare. There was only one Steve Jobs, and you’re probably not him. For the rest of us, making a successful management career is probably going to start with college, and if it doesn’t start with college – if you start and grow a business from scratch, or start in the proverbial mailroom or some other entry-level position at a corporation – you’re going to find yourself there eventually for the credentials and specialization modern industry expects.

If you’re interested in business, you ought to have a very well-developed sense of value: maybe you’ve done some basic cost-benefit analysis in your head, thinking about whether a management degree would be worth your time. Tons of entrepreneurial books and blogs will tell you you don’t need the degree. But those don’t tell you what is worth it to you.

You could absolutely learn the rudiments and fundamentals of management on your own, by hard work and trial-and-error, but wouldn’t it make more sense – and be a better investment – to make your mistakes and find your path before the stakes get too high? When you have the safety net of a school, and the mentorship of experienced, knowledgeable faculty? When a disappointment is just a disappointment for you, without costing yourself and others their job? If those questions make sense to you, read on – we’re going to explore your higher education options.

[When you are ready, check out our ranking on the best of the best US programs- Top 50 Best Value Master’s of  Management Degrees and our Top 50 Best Value Online Master’s of Management Programs]


 What Kind of Program is Right for Me?

Deciding on the type of program you need means considering your priorities, your current life situation, and where you want to go in your career. It also means taking a serious look at where you want to be in the future – when you graduate, ten years from now, even when you retire. Who you are, and who you want to be, is the key to deciding your fate.

So who are you?

  • Traditional College Age (18-25)
  • Non-Traditional College Age (over 25)

[Read our FAQ for help deciding whether to pursue an online or on-campus Master’s in Management Degree Program]

What experience do you have?

  • Little Job Experience
  • Extensive Job Experience
  • Entrepreneurial Drive

Why are you going to business school?

  • Want to Start Professional Career
  • Seeking Career Change
  • Earn Credentials to Further Existing Career

Traditional On-Campus

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Little Job Experience
Why: Start Professional Career

For young, traditional-aged (18-25) college students who may not have much job experience, the smartest choice is probably a traditional on-campus program. The benefits of an on-campus program are particularly important for those who need to prepare for professional life from scratch – without an already-developed set of connections, or practice in the cultural norms of business.

Because, aside from the highly technical skills like finance or statistics that go into a management degree, the most important parts of a management education are the “soft” skills of business – knowing how to present yourself professionally, to talk to other professionals, to develop a personal brand and image. And those things, for young, inexperienced people, are the kinds of skills developed in a good b-school.

An on-campus program can give students better opportunities for mentorship from experienced faculty, and networking with the school’s corporate or government contacts. Internships and first jobs will be easier to secure, and the camaraderie you develop with your student cohort will give you opportunities down the road, when you’re looking for partners or collaborators.

Accelerated (On-Campus or Online)

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Extensive Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Seeking Career Change, Earn Credentials

If you’re returning to school after extensive job experience, you’re probably looking for a graduate degree like an MBA or MiM to advance in your current company, or move into a career that is a better fit. If that’s the case, your priority might be to get it done FAST, trading in some lost income for a greater opportunity later on.

Accelerated programs have become very common in the last decade; almost every major business school offers them in some form, either on campus, at an extension campus, online, or hybrid (a mix of online and on-campus). Most accelerated programs allow students to earn a graduate management degree in only one year or 18 months, but there are stipulations – most of them require several years of work experience, and they are highly intensive; most students will have to study full-time to complete the program in time. Courses are typically scheduled for evenings or weekends.

For traditional-aged students, many colleges also offer accelerated BBA/MBA programs that allow a student to work straight through their bachelor’s degree into a master’s degree, finishing the whole shebang in just five years (as opposed to six or seven in a traditional program). These are for highly motivated students who know what they want and are willing to work for it, because they’re very demanding.

Some universities have also developed bachelor’s-completion to master’s programs for working adults who have some schooling (such as an associate’s degree) but do not have a bachelor’s degree. These programs allow students to complete bachelor’s and master’s courses in a shorter period of time.

Online

Who: Non-Traditional
With: Extensive Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Seeking Career Change, Earn Credentials

In the 21st century, a master’s degree has become a common requirement for higher-level positions in the corporate world, leading many working professionals to consider their potential for advancement and head back to school to up their credentials.

If you’re one of those students – the working adults who already have quite a few years of professional work under their belt, are confident in their professional skills, and have the network of connections and supporters to accomplish your goals, and only need the credentials to gild your resume – an online master’s degree, like our Top 50 Best Value Online Master’s in Management Programs, is probably your most economical and convenient option.

Whether it’s accelerated or a full 2-year master’s, online degrees meet the needs of the working adult – the flexibility to work around your own professional schedule, the convenience of not having to quit your job or relocate yourself and your family. Classes may be asynchronous (not meeting at any particular time) or synchronous (meeting live at a scheduled time), and some programs may require an on-campus orientation or workshop to build relationships, but no matter the format, online management degrees just make sense for working professionals.


How Do I Choose A College?

The thing to keep in mind with choosing a business school is that, as in all things in life, setting your priorities is a trade-off. A prestigious institution will probably not be cheap, or in a location that is convenient for you; the universities nearest to you in location may not be prestigious, or cutting-edge. The most innovative may not be prestigious, or may require you to move to a different area. In other words, you can’t have it all. Prestige and Innovation may go together, or Cost and Location may go together, but you’re not likely to find the perfect match in every category.

The key to creating the kind of ROI you need is in making up your mind about what constitutes value for you, and what you can do right now. Finding the right balance between reputation, affordability, location, and innovation means having the full picture, and finding the balance that is right for you – not some vague imaginary person, not some general “Student A,” but you, in your lifestyle, family situation, background, and goals.

Prestige

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Little Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Start Professional Career, Change Careers

We’ve all heard it said: in business, it’s who you know, not what you know. They say it because it’s true – having good connections in whatever field you’re going into can make the difference between a six-figure starting salary or a year and a half of unemployment after graduation.

A prestigious institution looks good on your resume, of course, but the most important thing about a really prestigious institution is that you won’t need the resume – employers will be coming to you, because a prestigious program can set you up with the best internships, link you with highly-placed alumni, and help you with every aspect of career coaching.

On the other hand, if you’ve already been working in a professional capacity and have your network in place – you just need credentials for advancement where you are – prestige probably isn’t as important as just getting the degree. You can more safely focus on other priorities, like location and affordability.

Innovative

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Little Job Experience, Extensive Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Start Professional Career, Change Careers, Earn Credentials for Advancement

Some programs are great in business fundamentals, the tried-and-true basics that have worked for generations. But 21st century business isn’t the business of your grandparents’ day, or your parents’ day, or even a few years ago. An old UPS tagline bragged that they were “Moving at the Speed of Business,” and that motto quickly took on a life of its own – it’s not a cliche if it’s true. Business today moves so fast, if all you know is the tried-and-true, you’ll be left behind.

The most cutting-edge management programs are the ones that are concerned with preparing students for where business is going, not where it is now. Now, when we say “innovation,” we typically think computers, but that’s not all – innovative management programs bring together a wide range of skill sets and perspectives, from Big Data to classical Greek philosophy (the age-old Stoics are having a heyday in recent years), emphasizing critical analysis, flexibility, and adaptability so that graduates are ready for whatever comes in the future.

A cutting-edge program is good for just about anyone – traditional-aged and non-traditional students at just about every level can benefit from flexibility and adaptability, especially those who have been working for a while and could use something that will increase their value to their current employer or on the job market.

But maybe you’ve already been working for a while in an entrepreneurial capacity, and you know the lay of the land – what you’re lacking is the background, the theory, and the tradition that helps the old guard gatekeepers (the ones holding the money) take you seriously. In that case, maybe the tried-and-true is right for you.

Location

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Little Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Start Professional Career, Seeking Advancement

Location is essential in business – why else do companies congregate in areas like Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, or Austin, TX? Success attracts success. The same is true of a management education. It’s no coincidence that some of the best business programs are in some of the best business regions.

If you’re choosing an on-campus program, location is as important as prestige (and often go together). Colleges and universities in a strong business city or region can provide access to internships, networking, jobs during school, and placement at graduation. If you’re in a position to move, choose a school in a region that is strong in the field you’re most attracted to – for finance, the Northeast; for technology, Southern California or the Pacific Northwest.

On the other hand, if you need to stay close to home – either for the savings of a public college or university with in-state tuition, or because you already have a career you can’t give up – then finding a degree you can earn in-place becomes more important. That’s another reason online programs are useful to the non-traditional aged, experienced working professional.

Affordability

Who: Traditional, Non-Traditional
With: Little Job Experience, Extensive Job Experience, Entrepreneurial Drive
Why: Start Professional Career, Change Careers, Earn Credentials for Advancement

Money – it’s the dirty word that college recruiters and marketers generally try to avoid. No doubt, higher education has become more transparent about costs than they used to be, but generally only when their tuition rates are low enough to be a selling point. Otherwise, it’s the same old story – “you can’t put a price on a good education.”

But of course you can, and everybody does. There are a lot of considerations when it comes to financing your management degree. For instance, many elite, highly-prestigious programs, like the Ivy Leagues and their equivalents, will make sure you get grant and scholarship financing if you qualify to get in, since admissions are so demanding that only the best students make the cut. If your family income is low enough, you can probably get an elite education for free.

For those who can’t make it into Harvard and Yale, cost is trickier. Online programs are generally lower-priced, as are public universities, at least for in-state residents. Regional campuses are generally cheaper than flagships, for the public institutions, but that may mean taking a hit on the prestige side. But, just as with location, if you’re a working adult looking for promotion, cost may be more important than prestige.


The Last Word in Value

Value Colleges usually looks at value as a continuum, a balance – there are a lot of considerations, and no school is a one-size-fits-all prospect. So here’s where the work comes in – putting together your factors to create your right balance. This guide is a starting point, a way for you to decide what conditions fit you and what kind of management program is the right choice.

It’s the 21st century; business schools are clamoring for students. You always have a choice, and it’s your market. Put on your thinking cap, write out your situation, and do some analysis. Run the numbers. The right program is out there.