Why B-Schools Should Worry About This New Harvard Business School Study

CORe takes a cohort-based, case-driven digital platform beyond the confines of Harvard Business School (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Wai)


The new logo for Harvard Business School Online

For many who can’t spend either the money or time in a full-time business program, the online courses could very well be the next best thing. “We tend to get a sense that something can’t be transformational if it’s not a two-year residential program,” says Mullane. “But transformation is really in the eye of the beholder and we need to be cognizant of the fact that the way we think about it is not the way others will think about it. In the main, people say that it has changed their careers and lives.

“The value is there for people who need just enough business education to allow them to ask the right questions and speak intelligently about business,” says Mullane. “Someone who is business inclined and just needs some pointed basic education in negotiations, finance or entrepreneurship, can get what they need and have an impact fairly quickly.  I met a guy who was a minister in a church in the south and he realized that managing a church is like managing a business. And he found CORe incredibly valuable. That is where it delivers the value well beyond it’s punching rate.” 

Mullane cites other examples. A person who went from an entry-level administrator to a college campus president and gained acceptance to a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University; a biochemist who wanted to do a startup and needed the skills, or a dancer who needed to transition to a choreographer. “That is why we want to be connected to the brand more closely because of the impact on our students,” adds Mullane.


Sheneka DeBerry

Sheneka DeBerry, now 41, agrees that CORe changed the trajectory of her career. “I felt stuck in my career even after having earned two degrees,” she says. “When I enrolled in HBX I was a mother of two young children, ages 3 and 5. I worked at Western Governors University in a support role as a faculty mentor. I was also delivering newspapers in the early hours of the morning to make ends meet for our family.”

She had enrolled in online classes before with little result. “I had taken online courses before and dropped out of them because I felt disconnected to the content and to other students,” says DeBerry. “My prior experience with distance learning made me feel isolated and I quickly lost interest. HBX was different. From the very start, I felt connected to other learners from around the world.”

Within months of completing the program, she was promoted at Western Governors University with what she calls a “considerable increase in my compensation.” Then, in 2016, DeBerry was accepted into Johns Hopkins University doctoral program. “I would never have dreamt that I was smart enough or good enough to be a student at one of the top universities in the county,” she says. “HBX helped me to realize my potential and equipped me with the knowledge to complete doctoral coursework.”


Jenna Pollack, a New York-based dancer, took CORe to shift into choreography and production

Last year, DeBerry was recruited to turnaround a campus at a career technical college. “Not only did my earnings increase once again, the knowledge I gained at HBX played a significant role in my success in managing campus operations. I understood how to read P & L statements and how to read and interpret data that influenced my strategic plans for the campus.”

Jenna Pollack has a similar story. A freelance dancer in New York, she took CORe during the summer of 2016, hoping to use it to shift her career toward the choreographic and producing side of the field. While she first found it difficult, Pollack says it ultimately has paid dividends. “For a more untraditional candidate like myself, I would warn that one’s curiosity has to be really piqued and aligned with the course to make it through,” says Pollack. “Still, the value placed on being an active member of the online community through discussions was invaluable to my understanding of the material. It also drew me back in when I was feeling frustrated, or like I didn’t belong in a business class as an artist. The course is set up to relay information in many ways for many types of learners, and in digestible bits for those of us really on-the-go. “

The program, she adds, exposed her to business language and thinking that she previously would have considered elusive. “I feel like now I am able to plan ahead in thinking about my career in terms of budgeting, and am making wiser economic decisions for the long-term,” she told Poets&Quants. “This feels especially important inside of a freelancer culture where it’s so easy to get caught up in living gig-to-gig. Taking the course didn’t debunk my artistic intuitions or visions, but gave me a way of speaking about them that I feel has set me up to be taken more seriously in my widening professional circles.”


Of the nearly 40,000 students who have taken HBX courses, 22,472 of them have done the very first CORe program that launched in June of 2014 with a short of more than 600 students. Tuition for the initial cohort was $1,500, though 85% of those enrolled were given need-based financial aid. The CORe program now costs $2,250.

“Last year around 300 incoming MBA students were required to take CORe, about a third of the class,” estimates Mullane. “And then a significant portion of the class took it anyway. A lot of them said a faculty member said they got the top grade in their financial reporting and control course, and they couldn’t have done it without having been in CORe.”

The online student survey, according to Mullane, also reconfirmed the value of Harvard’s case study approach to learning business. For survey respondents who had other online learning experiences, 94% said the Harvard courses were more impactful. “That is largely attributed to case learning,” believes Mullane. 


“The case method of learning really works and people love it. I tell people all the time that the case method was 100 years ahead of its time because if you think about online learning today it is about storytelling. The case method effectively teaches business concepts by storytelling, by putting you in the shoes of a protagonist. I have come to believe it’s really the only effective way to teach online.”

The cohort nature of HBS’ programs may put off some who want more flexible, on-demand online coursework. Mullane acknowledges that some potential students may prefer other options in long-distance business education. “At first, you might consider that a negative because of the lack of flexibility,” he says.

“We are not on demand. You have to sign up for a start date and a cohort. So you have a bounded time from start to finish, and we do that to drive students through the coursework at the same pace. Once people do it, they really value it significantly. They develop relationships with their fellow learners and many of them go far beyond the course and into the real world with long-term friendships.”