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Studying for an MBA: The Benefits of In-Person Programs


The modern options in higher education – attending classes online versus  on-ground, as well as hybrid programs using both methods – have benefitted different students in multiple ways. While such choices largely expand the total number of people earning degrees, it must be acknowledged that the value of learning by remote means (i.e., via computer teleconferencing) greatly differs from learning in person.  

Learning in a face-to-face environment offers unique advantages to graduate-level business students. Because most future managers and executives are expected to have exceptional interpersonal skills, the prospective student should consider how those skills are developed within their education.

Still, the question must be asked: can future business leaders, while earning an MBA, learn both the hard and soft skills of management through a computer screen?

This is not to say either one is good or bad. What works for one individual might yield lesser results for another. Therefore, it makes sense to consider the whole educational experience in its many variables – relative to the very nature of earning a graduate business degree and preparing for a career as an organizational leader.

The Pros and Cons of Online Learning from the Pandemic

When the global coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, took hold across the globe in early 2020, uncoincidentally, much of academia was prepared. Remote teaching was already being implemented as class options, or in established virtual programs, by many traditional universities. In the preceding decade, leading institutions had extended education beyond their physical campuses, with the added benefit of bringing higher education to students with mobility issues.

But when the pandemic arrived, almost every professor and program was forced into emergency online instruction – whether they liked it or not. Students who were accustomed to online classes might not have noticed any change whatsoever, but those who were new to teleconferencing had little choice but to adapt.

Perhaps adaptation was the greatest lesson of all from that time. A July 2021 report from McKinsey & Company found that college enrollment nationwide in the fall semester of 2020 dropped by 560,000 students, about 13 percent, compared to the prior year1. These numbers are particularly pronounced in lower income groups and communities of color, where internet access is limited and retention of male students is low. In fact, male students dropped out at three times the rate of their female counterparts.  

An article published in The New York Times in late 2020 specifically discussed the downside of remote learning for MBA students from reporter Paul Sullivan:

“Getting a master’s in business administration is about a lot more than book learning. It’s about the conversation in class and the chance meetings before and after the lecture.” 

He goes on to describe the importance of networking with fellow students, corporate recruiters, and visiting alumni. Sullivan quotes one student who unsurprisingly bemoaned the difficulty of maintaining concentration in a three-hour class on Zoom.

The Many Benefits of In-Person Learning (and Working)

The pandemic forced an online-only phase for higher education that had at least one benefit – it offered educators and students a chance to see the stark differences between virtual and in-person classroom environments.

Perhaps the foremost benefit is the degree of engagement with in-person classes. There is no hiding behind a computer screen – the student is mentally and physically in the same room with others, presenting themselves before, during, and after class as inquisitive, able to learn, able to debate, and capable of professionally conducting themselves within the constellation of classmates and instructors.

The traditional class experience is much more active, one that naturally lends itself to building relationships with other students. If a student needs clarification on a point, that individual can discuss it with a classmate or with the instructor during a break – without going through a more formal process of an email or getting lost in a string of other questions in the teleconference chat sidebar.

In-person learning is less likely to involve technical, IT issues, such as microphone or Wi-Fi fails, and avoids the issue of students choosing to turn off their cameras, losing their non-verbal cues to near anonymity. For those students relegated to smaller laptop screens, the field of vision pales in comparison to the traditional classroom, where such disciplines as calculus and linear programming often require complex problem solving on a large erase board. Some things are just easier to grasp from a 10-foot-wide whiteboard than a 13-inch digital screen.

There is additional research – conducted prior to the pandemic – that shows students prefer in-person instruction when given the choice. As published in the Journal of the European Economic Association2, eight classes at the University of Geneva, Switzerland were offered to undergraduate students in the spring and fall semesters of 2017 where they had the option of live streaming in lieu of in-person lectures. The study concluded that only 10% of students opted for streaming the lectures, typically when the “cost” of attendance would be considered high due to sickness or bad weather, not out of a preference for the virtual setting.

Of note, the Swiss study was conducted with courses taught in the largest auditorium of the school, with classes ranging in size from 240 to 490 students. Student-to-lecturer ratios of this nature might make the streaming option seem preferable, but the results show it was overwhelmingly not.

If students prefer in-person learning by a ratio of 9 to 10, it stands to reason that a preference for in-person interactions for developing business leaders would transfer into the workplace as well.

But hasn’t the pandemic changed that forever – such that managers must supervise remotely? In some cases, yes, work from home policies have become standard operating procedures. However, most require workers and certainly managers to be there at least some of the time. 

CommericalCafé, a national information resource to the commercial real estate industry, surveyed companies about the choices they were making mid-2021 around remote vs. in-office work, both at that time and in the future. The findings from 73 companies surveyed indicate the future of work is a mixed bag:

  • A full return to office-based work will be observed by 21 companies. Examples: Abbott Laboratories, Alliance Data Systems, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Citigroup, Micron Technology, Tesla, and Wells Fargo.
  • A hybrid of in-office and work-from-home will be the operating principle at 24 companies. Examples: Adobe, Dell Technologies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Salesforce, TIAA, U.S. Bancorp, and Uber Technologies.
  • “More work-from-home opportunities” will be offered by 28 companies. Examples: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, HP, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, PayPal Holdings, Starbucks, and Visa.

To be clear, no company surveyed is going 100% virtual. The future of work could certainly involve face-to-face interactions, especially for anyone with their eyes on the C-suite.

Business Requires Hard and Soft Skills

Graduate-level business students have additional incentives to complete their studies with high-touch, in-person programs. If for no other reason, it’s what employers expect of their management-track hires.

Financial Times conducted a survey in 2018 of employers to identify skills demands and gaps from MBA graduates. The most important characteristics needed by the 70 employers who responded fall into the broad category of “soft skills”, which includes an ability to work within teams and communicate with a variety of people across the organization.

This may be the reason for the rise in cohort learning, which is when teams of students remain together on a path of courses over several semesters. The interactions, mutual support, and collaboration between peers contribute to successful outcomes – and occur in a richer way when members of the cohort share physical spaces, both formal and informal. It’s hard to imagine such things as body language, public speaking, and even spontaneous wit naturally developing in a Zoom or Google Hangout as it might in an on-campus social setting.

Through degree programs that leverage in-person, cohort style learning, individuals have greater opportunity to expand their personal and professional network as they build the soft skills potential employers find the most valuable. 

Advanced Degrees at Different Career Stages Require Working in Teams

Many MBAs and other graduate-level business degrees (specialized master’s degrees, executive doctorates, and executive MBAs) are structured to enable individuals to rise to their next level of leadership. Typically, the program a student chooses heavily relies on their current life- and career-stage as well as their overarching goals.

Regardless of stage, aspiration, or even select program, teamwork will always be an essential part of an advanced degree – and rightfully so. Teams not only provide a way to offload some stress when tackling a new project, but also are valuable in providing new perspectives, answering questions, and furthering one of the key benefits to an advanced education: networking. 

Interactions through group assignments, peer reviews, brainstorming discussions, and more are arguably more meaningful in an in-person, collaborative environment for a number of reasons, including the aforementioned body language and spur of the moment interactions. Building an in-person rapport with your cohort gives you the opportunity to connect on a different level, where you get to know the full person, their mannerisms, and even catch a glimpse of their personal life. This builds stronger, meaningful connections quickly and offers an emotional aspect to the relationship that can be considered more difficult to build in a fully online modality. 

When connecting online, this type of rapport is also possible, but it can be considered much more difficult to achieve as it takes more time, energy, and intentional interactions from all participating parties to do so. During online team meetings, the challenge starts with stopping the “tactical” to have the water cooler conversations that help build the relationship beyond the current task at hand. 

Flexible Learning Options at the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School

In-person, online, or hybrid, you have options with your advanced degree at Pepperdine Graziadio. Our programs are designed to be collaborative in nature, leveraging cohort-style classes to deepen the interactions you have both inside and out of the classroom. 

Understanding your career goals and how our programs align, while a huge aspect to your degree, is only not the only thing to consider. Each curriculum is designed specifically for the career stage you’re in, and provides opportunities to capitalize on the collaboration, community, and cohort networking that enriches your experience beyond graduation. 

In addition to collaborative style classrooms, all our programs emphasize experiential learning through client-based projects and case studies. This provides our students the ability to interact with leading executives at renowned companies – providing in-person and online interactions and immersions with local, national, and even global companies. 

Pursuing an advanced education from Graziadio provides students with consistent, experiential learning opportunities throughout, a fundamental characteristic of the business school. Ethics and sustainable business practices are woven into the business competencies taught at Graziadio across all programs. Our programs that offer in-person or hybrid learning include our:

In a quickly evolving world, business leaders can come from anywhere and go just about everywhere to pursue their career goals. With convenient campus locations in Malibu, West Los Angeles, Calabasas, and Irvine, you have options to grow your network, achieve your professional goals, and learn how you can create a lasting impact as a Best for the World Leader. 


1McKinsey report is based on data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

2Distance Learning in Higher Education: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment, Cacault, Hildebrand, et al., August 2021