Written by Bryce Hammons, published on 2013-05-28

Since the inception of the first collegiate business school in 1881 – and the rise of the MBA program two decades later – graduate business schools have become established as an essential feature of the education world. The traditional two-year MBA program offers students many kinds of opportunity: high-level networking, study abroad and summer internships, to name just a few. Thomas Robertson, dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, believes – along with many other deans and faculty across the U.S. – that the two-year MBA is an unparalleled option for all it provides students in both the short and long term.

But the times are a-changing. Today’s hesitant economy forces students to weigh costs – tuition, fees, housing, books, etc. – when choosing an MBA program. Many will appreciate the flexibility to balance work and school schedules that comes with MBA options such as online or executive programs and part-time study. These students often find that the one-year MBA can cut costs, allow them to keep working (fingers crossed!) and accelerate their coursework so they can get in, out and hired on graduation.

Rahul Choudaha, Ph.D. points out that Kellogg at Northwestern University, F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, Mendoza at the University of Notre Dame, and Johnson at Cornell University are among the business schools now offering both an accelerated one-year MBA and the more traditional two-year MBA. The question is, which is the best option for you?

What Does A One-Year MBA Offer?

The costs of business school can be huge. CNN Money calculates that students end up paying close to $350,000 when they add up interest from student loans, tuition and fees, and loss of job income. For those looking to save, one-year MBAs can be a big help. These accelerated programs have been popular across the pond in Europe for years, and lately they’ve been making gains in the U.S., too. They do students a great service, greatly reducing the burden of tuition, fees, and room and board by cutting their grad-school stint in half.

But what about job pay after graduation? Does the outlook for a student with a one-year degree look any worse than that of a two-year MBA? Let’s just say that in these “lean” (OK, harsh) economic times, it pays to be smart. According to CNN Money author David Bogoslaw, one-year grads tend to come into jobs at the same pay rate as two-years. In certain instances, one-year MBAs even ended up earning more than their traditional counterparts. This was due mostly to a longer work history: one-year MBA students tended to have more work experience before entering the program than their two-year counterparts.

Still, Ron Alsop, writing over at GMAC.com, offers a different viewpoint. Alsop marshalls research from the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business, along with a global GMAC survey, to suggest that placement rates – along with job prospects and pay – weren’t necessarily as rosy as the previous figures might lead us to believe. One-year grads received a lower median starting salary ($73,203) than two-year grads ($85,000). On top of that, 86 percent of two-year 2011 MBA grads reported immediate job offers post-graduation, compared to only 75 percent of one-year grads. Now, does this mean students should avoid the one-year programs? That’s something I’ll just have to leave up to each student’s individual take on salary and taste in research papers.

What’s the Real Skinny on One-Year MBA Programs?

Shena Simmons, a graduate of the accelerated program offered at Goizueta, says that students entering a two-year program are looking for a true college experience. In contrast, their one-year colleagues simply want to get in, learn what they need, and get out in time to restart their careers.

A number of schools are combining their one-year MBA programs with a 100 percent online study option. These online MBA programs allow even more flexibility for their working students, who are already juggling family, work and other responsibilities that take up most of their time. Cleveland State University, for instance, launched its Mobile Accelerated MBA (MAMBA), which is an accredited, 100 percent online, accelerated one-year crash course.

What Do You Really Want Out of Life?

Free doughnuts would be nice. But I’m thinking in a slightly different direction (sorry doughnut lovers!): Can an accelerated one-year MBA program adequately prepare student for everything they will face in their imminent – and most likely, long and varied – work career? Robert F. Bruner, Dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, has the answer. Spoiler alert: it’s a resounding “No!”

A few years back, Bruner was named “Dean of the Year” by Poets & Quants, so it’s safe to assume he knows a thing or two about MBA programs, business, and everything else in between. Dean Bruner thinks education isn’t meant to be a sprint to the finish line. Zipping through grad school defeats the purpose of an MBA: to have enough time to learn, grow, and transform yourself into a better you. Fast-tracking the MBA program makes it nothing more than the quickest route from point A to point B, which does a great disservice to the student, says Bruner.

And deans across the country – including some of the more prominent business schools – tend to agree with Bruner. A two-year MBA program offers students a chance at a summer internship, provides study-abroad and leadership opportunities, allows for specialization and immersive learning, and hammers home lasting bonds between students, many of whom go through first-year core classes together. To Bruner, the two-year program is all about transformation, plain and simple – reaching your potential.

What Are Some of the Shortcomings of the One-Year MBA Program?

Summer internships often play a vital role for students hoping to land a real job when they graduate – and typical one-year accelerated programs don’t include a summer. Many schools with one-year programs are now trying to compensate for this potentially damaging lack of internship experience by pumping up their career services. Among other assistance, they help students with resume writing and interview training, according to Cathie Gandel, writing in U.S. News & World Report. Another opportunity for one-year students is to get outside their comfort zone through study abroad. Goizueta, in particular, offers one-years a chance to head off to India, China, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, to get a taste of real-world issues beyond the sometimes-narrow U.S. field of vision.

What’s the Verdict: The One-Year or Two-Year MBA Program?

What it boils down to is that the one-year MBA program offers students a way to cut costs, expedite their educations and gain job opportunities, which are, according to many experts, comparable to those of their two-year MBA colleagues. For students who prefer a more traditional approach, the two-year MBA program provides internship opportunities between the first and second year, strong networking potential, study-abroad opportunities, and more. In the end, it all comes down to desire, level of work experience, money in the bank, and job prospects during your education. So, learn all you can and choose the perfect MBA program for you!