General MBA vs. Specialized MBA: Which Should You Pursue?

An MBA student takes notes during an online class.

Why earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree? Most students who enroll for an MBA focus their studies on a broad range of topics, including accounting, management, corporate finance, political management, and healthcare, to pursue various careers in leadership. Every role from healthcare consultant to CEO can benefit from the experience and expertise developed in business school.

The versatility of the modern MBA has made it one of the most popular graduate degrees in the U.S. In 2018-2019, business degrees represented nearly a quarter of all master’s credentials awarded in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This interest in postgraduate business education isn’t a surprise, considering an MBA can be very useful when applying to many types of jobs and can contribute to higher earnings potential over the course of a career.

That said, not all MBA programs and concentrations are the same. Students have a lot of options for MBA focuses in particular, including entrepreneurship, operations management, and numerous healthcare-related topics. A Healthcare MBA (HCMBA) is a good choice for those seeking a variety of electives as well as graduate certificate options for clinical and translational research, regulatory affairs, and healthcare quality, among other options.

Difference Between a General MBA and a Specialized MBA

General MBA vs. specialized MBA: Which is right for you? This is the first thing to consider when choosing an MBA program.

Business and finance courses are probably what springs to mind when someone thinks of an MBA. That makes sense, as classes in those subjects account for a significant portion of the general MBA curriculum.

Specialized MBA programs incorporate much of the coursework of a typical MBA while adding a deep focus on a specific subject, such as healthcare. There is no meaningful difference in difficulty level between the two types, or between the different MBA focus areas, healthcare or otherwise.

Additionally, while salaries vary according to factors like job and location, the median salaries are often similar for graduates of general MBA programs and specialized MBA programs, according to PayScale. In July 2021, for example, the median pay for MBA degree holders overall was $91,000; for healthcare administration MBA degree holders specifically, it was $84,000. Graduates in both categories earned salaries that topped out at more than $200,000 for some roles.

General MBA Outcomes

Overall, a general MBA program can prepare students for careers at small businesses or large enterprises by giving them versatile skills in communication, management, finance, and more. Big-picture business topics are the major fixtures of a general MBA track, which typically includes a focus on subjects such as:

  • Accounting
  • Business Ethics
  • Data Analysis
  • Corporate Finance
  • Marketing
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • Management
  • Operations

General MBA graduates may pursue a variety of roles, ranging from accountant or investment banker to consultant or chief financial officer. Catch-all general MBAs typically do not provide the particular knowledge that many students want and need to pursue certain careers, such as those in healthcare, real estate, and green energy, however.

Specialized MBA Outcomes

Unlike general MBA programs, specialized degrees incorporate advanced learning in a particular area of interest in addition to the selection of classes in overall business fundamentals. When examining general MBA and specialized MBA options, here are three popular MBA focus areas for pursuing leadership roles in specific industries.

1. Healthcare

A Healthcare MBA is designed to build specialized expertise. To that end, an HCMBA program may include elements of business, medicine, health sciences, public health, and nursing — so students can pursue a comprehensive and customizable course of study.

The core curriculum of an HCMBA may be broadly similar to the overview we provided earlier of general MBA tracks:

  • Financial Accounting
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Decision Making and Data Analysis
  • Operations Management
  • Finance
  • Global Perspectives
  • Microeconomics for the Global Economy
  • Organizations and Human Capital
  • Marketing
  • Business Ethics and Public Policy
  • Strategic Management
  • Foundational Management Topics in Healthcare

Note that while these classes feature many familiar topics, they also include healthcare-specific coursework. Moreover, topics like accounting and strategic management are particularly important within healthcare contexts such as hospitals and nursing homes, all of which have complex payments systems and budgets.

Beyond the program core, there is considerable variation in the available healthcare-related electives and graduate certificates. In the HCMBA program at the George Washington University (GW), for example, options include epidemiology, patient safety systems, global regulatory affairs, and issues and trends in health systems. Seven different graduate certificates are also available, covering areas like integrative medicine and clinical research administration.

2. Marketing

Marketing-focused MBA programs emphasize the function of creating, communicating, and offering value to customers. The main goals of marketing are:

  • Attracting a target market
  • Persuading consumers to purchase your product or service
  • Encouraging a customer to take a specific action

Strategies for achieving these goals involve the use of efforts such as advertising, social media, special offers, and product displays.

3. Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship has become a key focus area for many online MBA programs in recent years. The curricula of entrepreneurship-oriented MBAs are pretty straightforward: They cover how to start and finance a new business, recruit employees, recognize market opportunities, assess financial performance, acquire customers and build business relationships.

There are other focuses beyond these three, including ones that go deeper into subjects like politics and public relations, two increasingly popular career paths for graduates.

Choosing Between an Online and On-Campus MBA

With the rise of the online MBA, there are considerations that go beyond evaluating general MBA vs. specialized MBA programs. Business students also have many options for how and where they get their education.

There’s much to be said for the traditional route of going to class and learning in a lecture hall. However, considering the busy lives of graduate students (many of whom are working professionals with family obligations), this route may not always be the best option for those seeking an MBA

Benefits of an On-Campus MBA

The main benefit on-campus students enjoy is their proximity to professors and fellow classmates, with whom they can easily study and collaborate on projects. Attending lessons allows students to ask questions as they pop up, as well as utilize office hours to interact with instructors or get added assistance. Having a network of peers nearby can also be beneficial for those studying for an MBA, as collaboration and building interpersonal skills are key objectives for master’s students.

Benefits of an Online MBA

Some MBA students may be reluctant to consider online degrees because they question the quality of the education compared to an on-campus degree. But an online MBA program can offer the same enriching, immersive and fulfilling experience as an on-campus option.

Quality online MBA programs have their learning goals and professional outcomes closely aligned with on-campus degrees to ensure students gain the same skills and knowledge no matter how they complete coursework. In fact, there should be little to no difference in curricula between on-campus and online study. The best programs also support students with the same faculty availability and opportunity for interaction that an on-campus student may have.

What Are the Benefits of an Online Healthcare MBA Program?

When prospective HCMBA students weigh whether an on-campus graduate education or an online program is right for them, they may want to consider their personal needs and assess how well each respective program empowers them to learn in a way that is most conducive to their personal and professional goals.

In this context, the advantages of an online master’s degree can become clear. Specifically, an online Healthcare MBA may be right for you if you value:

  • Flexibility in how and when you study. Working full time is a priority for many graduate students as they want to maintain their career momentum, and being able to conduct studies when their schedules allow is a great advantage.
  • Independence in completing your work. While there may be deadlines for major projects, students can work at their own pace in an online HCMBA program. Having the autonomy to complete coursework when it is convenient helps students handle matters outside of school without neglecting their studies.

Considerations for Choosing an MBA Focus

Deciding on an MBA focus area, or indeed on what type of MBA (general or specialized) to get, will depend upon your professional and personal goals. HCMBA programs attract business students from many different backgrounds — including clinicians, health services professionals, and even business leaders from fields like consulting and insurance who are looking to enter healthcare for the first time.

In other words, anyone who might consider a standard MBA could also potentially benefit from a healthcare-oriented one, since it opens up new opportunities in the country’s largest employment sector. The U.S. healthcare industry accounted for nearly one-sixth of the country’s gross domestic product in 2019, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In this context, earning a healthcare MBA can provide crucial preparation in a growing field. And an online program provides flexibility for working professionals so they can complete all requirements as conveniently as possible.

Discover the MBA That’s Right for You

Explore how the George Washington University online Healthcare MBA program can prepare you for in-demand roles in the modern healthcare sector. With key finance and management classes as well as flexible electives and graduate certificate options in healthcare, the program can provide a strong foundation for a variety of senior-level positions in healthcare management, clinical practice, and in the startup space. And since the program is online, you can take advantage of its many benefits without ever having to travel to campus.

Discover how the GW HCMBA can help you achieve your professional goals. 

Recommended Readings

3 Healthcare Electives That Can Help You Define Your Focus

Guide to an MBA MPH Dual Degree

What You Can Do with an MBA in Healthcare Administration


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HCPLive, "Health Share of Economy to Near 20% in Next Decade"

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PayScale, Master of Business Administration (MBA), Health Care Administration Degree

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