Tuesday, March 05, 2013 at 12am

One or Two Year MBA Programs: TopMBA Mentor

One or Two Year MBA Programs: TopMBA Mentor main image

While outcomes may not differ, experience is key in determining the best program length for MBA candidates, writes Nunzio Quacquarelli.

Once upon a time – say, 20 or 30 years ago – we could safely say that programs at top-tier schools were two years in length. This, however, is no longer the case. Employers certainly do not feel this way. In terms of employment outcomes, a pretty solid indicator of program quality, there is no evidence of any difference between one and two year programs. The latest Global 200 schools reporting the highest average salaries three months after graduation are evenly split; nine are one year or shorter, nine are longer than 16 months, with the remaining two offering 16-month programs.

Interestingly, the highest average base-salary figures belonged to one year programs. Macquarie Graduate School of Management leads the way (US$143,500), followed by Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School (US$140,000), Warwick Business School (US$137,000) and IMD (US$129,500).

Of two-year schools, Stanford, whose 2011 cohort earned, on average, US$127,000, reports the highest average; a result of its proximity to the wealth of technology and consulting opportunities offered by Silicon Valley. To give a sense of perspective, the average base salary in Western Europe and North America across Global 200 business schools is US$92,000.

Experience the key differentiator

So, why would you opt for one over the other? Largely, the chief differentiator for a candidate is experience.  The one year format was developed by European schools looking to attract older, more experienced candidates. This is still the target demographic for these more concentrated programs, with the average age of students standing at 29 as compared to 26-7 in the US, where the two-year model is still very much predominant.

Learning is accelerated in these one year programs, and a greater level of efficiency is required. The focus is tighter, with integrated cross-functional courses and fewer electives. The more-experienced candidates at whom these programs are targeted – many one-year programs demand at least three years experience – are more likely to get to grips with the accelerated learning environment and enjoy the benefits that it offers. And, of course, the lower opportunity cost makes shorter programs ideal for older candidates likely to have higher salaries and more responsibilities. We tend to see a greater proportion of women on one-year programs too (Macquarie’s cohort is 41% female and Vlerick’s is 38% - the average is 32%) for obvious reasons. However, we can see where a two-year school has made a particular effort, this is less the case – Wharton, at which we see a 40% female cohort, is good example.

Functional skills

Two year courses tend to be more academically rigorous, going into more detail in core foundational courses. For those who want develop specialist skills in finance and accountancy, and other functional areas, the rigor of a two year program may be better. Older candidates will have already been through this phase of functional development, and will be more interested in the softer and leadership skills required for senior management roles, and one year programs have evolved to meet these needs. Younger, less experienced candidates, however, need to develop these skills. Two-year programs also allow students to gain some experience through internships, and the greater attention to detail in the functional elements of the course allow for some catch-up.

The extra time allows for a greater breadth of topics to be covered, affords more flexibility, and leaves more time in the second year to apply for jobs, while candidates on one year programs tend to leave the search until after graduation. These factors in combination mean that for a career changer a two year program might be more suitable.

Responsiveness to the market

From a candidate point-of-view, one-year programs have enjoyed a steady growth in popularity, with QS applicant research showing that over 50% of potential applicants now favor a shorter program (this may be tied in to the rising average of applicants – 28.3 in 2012). The picture was very different only five or ten years ago; testament to the increasing recognition and acceptance of one-year programs. The prevalence of this model in Asia has probably contributed to this, and we are increasingly seeing one year programs being offered in the US, at Kellogg and USC Marshall School of Business, for example.

The reality is that candidates wants flexibility, and schools offering both options are showing greater responsiveness to the market. There is no evidence of a quality differential between the two – and certainly, no basis for not offering accreditation to one-year programs, as some two-year schools were demanding of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business in 2012 as the body reassesses its accreditation standards. Both have their merits, and the simple truth is different candidates have different needs, which may be better served by one program length over another.