The Best Alternatives to an MBA

An MBA isn't the only business-focused curriculum students can pursue. Alternative degrees, certificates, and other training programs are also available.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on September 21, 2023
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  • There are many alternatives to an MBA, including shorter degree programs, certificates, and free online courses.
  • Students can pursue the increasingly popular master's in management degree or take on a more specialized master's degree based on their career path.
  • Free online courses and certifications can also mean increased job prospects and career advancement without worrying about the cost or time commitment of an MBA.
  • Many schools also offer "mini MBA" programs, covering many of the same skills as a traditional MBA in a condensed and affordable format.

A master of business administration (MBA) degree has long been viewed as a gateway to career advancement and better earnings — but it isn't the only way for professionals to unlock new opportunities.

A wide variety of specialized master's programs and emerging degrees are available as business schools embrace new technologies and innovate to meet students' needs. Many of those highly specialized degree programs enable students to fill a workforce niche and gain a hefty return on their investment.

Price and time commitment are often the biggest barriers to working professionals who want to pursue a master's degree, with even the most affordable online MBA programs running up tens of thousands of dollars in tuition expenses — not to mention the lengthy time commitment for students.

With the advent of online learning, however, professional certifications and free online courses can beef up students' resumes and skill sets without requiring such a massive investment of time and money.

Here's what you need to know about alternatives to an MBA.

Featured Online Master's in Management Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Master's in Management

A master's in management degree generally covers the same core concepts as an MBA, with a focus on leadership and business fundamentals.

Where master's in management programs usually differ from MBAs, however, is typically in their student population and focus. Whereas MBA students often have work experience and train in specific areas to advance in their fields, a master's in management program tends to enroll younger students overall and focuses more broadly on leadership and management to ready students for a host of career opportunities across multiple sectors.

General manager, store manager, and operations manager are all common jobs for master of management students.

Master's in management programs tend to be intensive, one-year, in-person programs, although that format varies by school. The University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, for example, offers a 10-month program that covers a wide range of topics, including accounting and marketing.

Master's in Management vs. MBA

Master's in Management

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    Tends to be more affordable
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    Students tend to be younger, and programs don't usually require work experience.
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    Typically takes a year to 18 months to complete
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    More recently developed but quickly growing degree
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    Applies to more than just the private sector


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    More expensive, although prices vary widely by program type and school
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    Students typically have more work experience, and some programs require a certain amount of work experience.
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    Full-time programs typically take two years to complete
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    Long-established graduate business degree
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    Tends to be focused on the private sector

Sources: City University of Seattle. Rollins College, Marquette University

Specialized Master's Degrees

MBA programs often include concentrations that allow students to hone their skills in a certain area, and some schools are increasingly adopting new, tech-focused specializations around artificial intelligence and cybersecurity to allow their students to take on rapidly growing and highly competitive roles in their careers.

Specialized degree programs are another option for students who want to hone their skills and boost their career prospects.

Alternative Master's Degrees to an MBA


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Master of finance programs prepare students to crunch numbers, analyze data, and make key decisions around organizational finance. Degrees typically run around a year and can lead to a wide range of financial leadership opportunities.


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These programs focus on branding, and many highlight digital marketing and social media. Master's in marketing programs prepare students to make their companies and organizations more visible and reach their target audiences. These programs often lead to roles like marketing manager and director of marketing.

Information Technology

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Information technology (IT) is a core part of modern business, and a master's in information technology prepares students to manage the host of systems an organization needs to function.


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A master's in accounting program prepares students to track and manage an organization's money and often includes specialized, practical coursework to prepare students for accounting jobs.

Artificial Intelligence

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Businesses are increasingly interested in the emerging and fast-growing field of artificial intelligence (AI). These new degree programs prepare students to use machine learning in a wide range of fields.


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With the number of ransomware attacks ticking up year after year, businesses are becoming more focused on data security. At the same time, a nationwide shortage of cybersecurity workers has left businesses scrambling to meet a growing data security demand. Enter a master's in cybersecurity, which prepares students to secure their organization from attacks and incorporate best practices into their operations.


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Chief climate officers and chief sustainability officers ensure their businesses are compliant with government climate regulations while also helping to move their organizations toward sustainable, climate-friendly business practices. Master's in sustainability programs focus on both the environment and society at large, training students on the effects of climate change and how to build eco-friendly organizations.

Featured Online MBA Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Massive Open Online Courses

Whereas students need to weigh the hefty price of an MBA or other graduate business program, a massive open online course (MOOC) comes at zero cost or admission requirements to students.

Thousands of free online courses are readily available to anyone with an internet connection and cover almost every business-related topic imaginable, from business analytics to accounting and even emerging fields like sustainability and cybersecurity best practices. Many high-power business schools offer MOOCs on platforms like EdX, broadening their access and making the skill-building classes a potent addition to students' resumes.

The no-cost classes can serve as a proving ground for students testing the waters before pursuing a full-time degree, simulating what a class might feel like in a paid program — without the hefty price tag.

Mini MBAs

A mini MBA is an accelerated, low-cost option to a full degree program. It acts more as a skill-boosting course that can help students increase their business acumen without having to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for a traditional MBA.

These flexible, cheap training programs vary in cost but typically cost only a few thousand dollars. Mini MBA programs typically act as supplemental credentials rather than replacements for a full degree but come with various specializations that can unlock new skills and opportunities for students.

Mini MBA programs can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to complete, allowing students to rapidly add the program to their resume and immediately put their new skills to work.


Earning multiple, stackable credentials can lead to better earnings, the RAND Corporation said in a report earlier this year — particularly for low-income students.

The RAND Corporation analyzed programs in Colorado and Ohio and found that short-term, stacked credentials and certifications can lead to a high return on investment. That report comes amid a nationwide push toward nondegree and alternative education in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earning a professional certification can mean career advancement, new skills, and a good return on investment for working professionals. Certifications in a skill or software tend to be cheaper than pursuing an MBA while still boosting students' careers. Certifications are also less of a time commitment than a full degree, typically taking less than a career to complete.

Professionals seeking to enter into managerial roles, for example, could pursue a certification in project management. The Project Management Institute offers an associate degree in project management and project management professional certifications that train students in leading large projects and meeting business goals.

Prerequisites for professional certifications vary by program. For example, the International Institute of Business Analysis requires at least 75,000 hours of experience over 10 years, 35 hours of professional development over four years, an exam, and an application fee for its certified business analysis professional certification. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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