Should You Get an Online MBA Degree?

People looking to earn an MBA degree online can find hundreds of programs on the Internet. Such choice, students have learned, can be both a blessing and a curse.

Yes, a choice of schools is nice. But prospective candidates for online MBAs now have to sift through a deluge of university options, both for-profit and non-profit, the legitimate as well as those that could be termed “diploma mills.” Sham schools continue to operate two years after the well-publicized incident of Chester the dog earning an MBA online, and they pose challenges both to people seeking serious programs and to genuine distance-learning programs trying to establish their credibility.

Institutions across the board offer more MBA degrees—the total number of graduate business degrees increased by 47% from 2000 to 2009, according to U.S. Department of Education data, and more and more of those degrees are offered online.

The sound of “online MBA” inspires many reactions—and more importantly, raises many questions. How does the quality of an online program compare with a traditional one? Do employers judge an MBA differently if they know it was earned online? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Should a potential MBA candidate hope to pay less for a degree online—and when should they be prepared to dole out more? How does accreditation play a role?

And just how typical is “Rochville University,” the institution that graduated a pug for zero coursework and a few hundred bucks—and was quite ready to grant this author an MBA within a week or two (see related story)? What’s the real landscape of the online MBA?


In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a surge of online degree programs, many directed toward MBA candidates. Aspen University claims to have offered the first online MBA degree in 1987, and enrollment in such programs has only grown since. Growth in online MBA programs seemed to spike, many statistics report, starting in 2000. Much of the growth has taken place among for-profit universities.

A range of institutions have attempted to cobble together an online MBA program—education coaching and test service Kaplan and Newsweek tried offering an online MBA together in 2006 and 2007, and in 2010, the London School of Business and Finance Global M.B.A. even offered its degree through a Facebook application. The omnipresent for-profit University of Phoenix now boasts upwards of 150,000 students, alumni, and faculty who have passed through its web pages.

Many online MBA programs, though, amount to “paper mills,” according to Vicky Phillips, CEO of, a consumer-awareness organization focused on online MBAs. Phillips’ organization earns money from ad and sponsorship revenue from universities recognized by the non-profit Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education, but she makes a point of keeping advertising sharply separate from editorial content. Phillips, who famously succeeded in getting her dog Chester an MBA from Rochville University, also says she refuses to sell ads to dubious programs.

Phillips estimates there are over 300 questionable online MBA programs—more than triple the number of online MBA programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the oldest and most widely recognized sign of legitimacy.

Data from British-based screening agency Verifile Limited illustrates which U.S. states contain the most questionable schools and accrediting agencies, with California (134), Hawaii (94), and Washington (87) topping the list. Verifile also suggests that Phillips’ estimate about the number of questionable institutions is low. “The database now includes 2,615 known bogus education and accreditation providers [globally],” states Verifile’s March 2011 report on diploma mills, “an increase of 48% in just one year.” In North America, Verifile reports there are 1,095 that “operate or claim to operate,” a jump of 23%, and the U.S. holds the crown for the most in the world at 1,008. These fake diplomas, Verifile notes, are offered “mostly online.”