Is There an Ideal Length for an MBA Program?

Representatives from three business schools debate whether an MBA program should last one year, 16 months, or two years.
Is There an Ideal Length for an MBA Program?

What’s the ideal length for a full-time MBA program? What’s the right balance between investment of time, investment of money, and quick return to the workforce? To some extent, the answer depends on the needs of the individuals who are enrolling. Some students want to master essential business skills as quickly as possible so they can return to their jobs with minimal delay; some want to take extra time to develop specializations or acquire hands-on experience through internships. For that reason, many schools offer a portfolio of programs of different lengths so they can appeal to a variety of target markets. But other schools have committed to a single program length that they offer to all students because they believe it’s the best way to teach the necessary skills. Here, representatives of three schools present the reasons they have chosen program formats of one year, 16 months, and two years. Their arguments revolve around time, money, intensity—and providing the best options for both students and employers.


Still the One

By Virginie Fougea

Almost 60 years ago, INSEAD was a pioneer of the one-year MBA. Many students find the format ideal because it offers an excellent return on investment in terms of both time and money. In a one-year program, students spend less money on tuition and living expenses than they do in a two-year program, yet they still reap the benefits of the salaries they will earn as a result of acquiring their MBAs. In fact, according to our students, the payback period is very short—on average, 2.4 years.

The one-year format also allows students to return to the workforce quickly, which is one reason why 90 percent of our graduates are employed within three months. Students who attend longer programs invest additional time and money; they might spend many more months recouping opportunity costs.

The one-year program also offers an advantage to our school: It allows us to attract a set of diverse, international students who might not be willing to invest 16 or 21 or 24 months in pursuing their MBAs. Every year, we have students from around 70 different nationalities enrolled at one of our three campuses. We believe this multicultural environment is ideal for professional and personal development—and our one-year format helps us build such a dynamic student body.

It is true that the one-year format means we must be efficient. We have assembled a flexible curriculum that allows students to create the ideal mix of courses for their own learning goals. We offer participants 75 electives and two intakes—one starting in January, and one in September. We also offer them the option of studying at one of our campuses on three different continents or with one of our U.S. partner schools.

The INSEAD program is intense, with classes held almost every day, including Saturdays. Students who wish to get hands-on experience before job-hunting can participate in internships if they enroll in our January program. Within our one-year timeframe, we are confident that we cover the fundamentals students need to become successful leaders.

Our goal is for our program to bridge the boundaries between classroom theory and real-life practice and to put students back in the workplace with all their newly acquired knowledge still fresh in their minds.

Virginie Fougea is the director of MBA recruitment and admissions at INSEAD, which has campuses in Fontainebleau, France; Singapore; and Abu Dhabi.


Sweet Sixteen

By Andrea Masini

While most business schools offer either a one- or two-year MBA program, at HEC Paris we think a 16-month format is the perfect model. Most students enroll in business programs for one of two reasons: to secure positions in general management or to switch careers. A 16-month program helps them meet either objective. It’s difficult to compress the necessary material into a shorter period of time, but a longer program keeps students out of the workforce long enough to have a negative impact on career advancement.

The 16-month program also fits perfectly into the academic calendar, as it can be composed of four four-month terms. At HEC Paris, we offer two intakes per academic year, one starting in September and one in January. Because the four terms are identical in length, courses offered in a given term, such as specializations, can be made available to both groups. This format allows students in the two classes to mix and maximizes the number of available electives.

During the first eight months of the program, participants take fundamental core courses to learn the essential business disciplines. They also take a language course, learn leadership development, and receive career coaching.

The following eight months are more flexible in nature, which allows participants to tailor their MBA experience. During one four-month period, they can choose from a range of electives and fieldwork projects; they also can opt to participate in international exchange programs with business schools elsewhere. During the other four-month period, they take courses in specific domains such as strategy, marketing, finance, or entrepreneurship.

We think our 16-month program has many advantages over a one-year format. For instance, during the eight-month term on fundamentals, students who come from functional jobs like engineering will have enough time to digest key knowledge about finance and operations—knowledge they must have if they are to be credible as general managers.

But students also will need to convince future employers that they’ve acquired specialized knowledge in their new fields, especially if they’re looking to switch careers. A 16-month format allows them to build CVs by taking relevant courses, working on projects in their chosen fields, and interning at corporations in their new industries. They would find it impossible to fit in all these activities during a shorter program.

Students in a 16-month program also have enough time to profit from the richness and complexity of the diverse classroom. The 200 MBA students at HEC Paris typically come from more than 50 countries, and 90 percent of the class is international. Students gain a global perspective as they interact with and learn from their colleagues. Not only do they test their leadership skills in the classroom, but they create a network of colleagues for life.

The 16-month program also has advantages over a two-year format. For instance, a two-year program increases the costs for participants because it involves longer residencies and requires students to spend more time without jobs. A two-year program tends to spend the entire first year teaching the fundamentals. Not only does this mean students have less time to customize their programs with electives, but it also means students might start their internships before they have taken the specialized courses that will provide them with the skills they need in their chosen industries.

While every school must choose the model that best fits its culture and objectives, at HEC Paris we believe a 16-month program is the best compromise between the need to provide deep knowledge and the need to reduce opportunity costs. Our placement rate reinforces this belief, as 90 percent of our students find work within three months after graduation. Thus, we are convinced a 16-month program empowers MBA students from any background to achieve their career goals.

Andrea Masini is associate dean of the MBA program at HEC Paris in France.

It Takes Two

By Ronald T. WIlcox

Michael Sturm had spent part of his post-collegiate career commanding naval nuclear reactors and leading missions in the Persian Gulf, including heading an anti-piracy team off the coast of Somalia. After completing his service, he knew he wanted to make a dramatic career change and enter the field of business, but he wasn’t sure how to start writing the next chapter.

I meet many students like Michael—smart, ambitious, motivated, but lacking the tools and networks they need to make radical career changes. I believe a two-year MBA program is the best solution for helping such students take their next steps, because it offers four key advantages:

Time to think: A two-year program enables students to develop the necessary tools and skills; the summer break allows them to complete an internship. The format also gives students more time to reflect and research as they plan their careers.

Time to develop intellectual reasoning: In the first year, students build their core knowledge, but as they take electives during their second year, they master new topics and disciplines that help them solve real-world problems.

Time to develop leadership skills: Throughout the two-year experience, students hone their leadership abilities through courses, projects, travel, and club memberships, where they learn the benefits of speaking up and getting involved.

Time to form a network: Students who invest time and energy in two-year programs are not only developing lifelong skill sets, but also creating relationships that will help them achieve their goals. These relationships—built through classroom experiences, team projects, faculty engagement, and social interaction—are among the most enduring benefits of the two-year MBA format.

There is no doubt that the MBA has changed. Like most education services and an increasing number of consumer products, the business model for MBA education is being unbundled. Students can choose from options such as certificates, specializations, and alternative degree programs, many increasingly available in on-demand formats. The format students choose fundamentally depends on what they want out of their business education experience. But at the Darden School of Business, we believe that the two-year MBA format remains the single most effective way to prepare students for business careers.

At Darden, students spend their first year in our intensive core curriculum, gaining an integrated perspective on general management while developing an enterprise-wide viewpoint. From finance and marketing to accounting and leadership, the required courses cover foundational business themes. Students gain both breadth and depth of knowledge while discovering what career paths they want to follow.

In the final term of their first year, Darden students begin choosing from more than 100 electives as they customize their programs and build skill sets they will need for the future. In their second year, they build more knowledge on the foundation they acquired in the first year.

At Darden, our mission is to improve the world by developing responsible leaders and advancing knowledge. Ask five Darden alums to describe their experience at the school, and I’d wager four of them will call it transformational. I believe the two-year format does the best job of transforming bright young people into future leaders who are ready to perform at a high level from day one.

Ronald T. Wilcox is NewMarket Corporation Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for degree programs at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business in Charlottesville.


This article appeared in print in the March/April 2017 issue.