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HBS Says Online Enrollment Soared 70% In First Quarter

It’s been just three months since Harvard Business School rebranded its online learning initiative to Harvard Business School Online from the somewhat enigmatic acronym HBX.

And in the first quarter since the change, interest and enrollment in Harvard’s digital courses have skyrocketed. The school says that enrollment has soared by 70% since the change, while traffic to its site has jumped 40%. Those increases for January through March of this year are comparisons with the school’s previous October through December 2018 quarter.

The big jump underscores the growing popularity of online coursework, particularly from prestige higher education brands. Harvard does not yet offer any degree programs like many other business schools (see The Best Online MBA Programs Of 2019), but it does have a wide portfolio of digital courses in everything from Business Analytics and Entrepreneurship Essentials to Disruptive Strategy and Economics for Managers.

News of the growth spurt was revealed in an interview HBS Dean Nitin Nohria did with the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. “The impact [of the rebranding] has been immediate,” Nohria told the Crimson. “We’ve seen a 40 to 50 percent rise in applications already. It’s been literally a step change in the number of people who can now find us and through that are applying.


Dean Nitin Nohria

“Most people did not know that HBX was actually associated with Harvard Business School,” added Nohria. “We said, ‘You know, we’re proud of it, so why should we not put our name on an educational experience we are proud of?’”

More than a simple name change, however, Harvard Business School Online also released with its rebranding a third party survey of highly impressive career outcomes for students who have taken its digital courses. The survey of nearly 1,000 graduates of its online courses found that one in four said they have received a promotion or a title change as a result of the HBX course they completed (see Why Business Schools Should Worry About This New Harvard Business School Study).  

More than half said it led to an increased scope of work, and even more surprising, one-third said they were able to transition into a new field. No less important, one in two respondents said they have received increased attention from recruiters. Those are objectives commonly sought by applicants to most MBA, specialty business masters and non-degree executive education programs.


The name change, according to Nohria, also was motivated by the fact that the school now felt its online programs had proven worthy to be part of the larger HBS brand. “We wanted it to be case-based, we wanted it to be interactive, we wanted it to be engaging, we wanted to have high completion rates,” Nohria told the Crimson. “By this year we had developed confidence that in fact, we could do all of these things.”

Nohria told the student newspaper that the increased interest in the school’s online courses has not resulted in students of lesser quality. “When people think of the name, they think that they have to be a quality person to apply because that’s built into the very ethos and reputation of Harvard,” Nohria said. “We think that all in all, it has been a very good move for the school.”

Since the launch of its first online offering in June of 2014, nearly 40,000 students have taken a long distance course from Harvard Business School. The school, moreover, has expanded its online course catalog to a dozen options that range from a three-week-long course on Sustainable Business Strategy costing $950 to an eight-week dive on Scaling Ventures with a price tag of $4,500. 


HBS’s very first online play, the bundled trio of business fundamentals dubbed CORe for Credential of Readiness, has now been completed by more than 22,000 students, including nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs. CORe, still the most popular of the school’s online offerings now sports a price tag of $2,250, up from its introductory price of $1,500, or $3,600 if a student wants to take the course for credit. Students can take CORe over either an eight-week timeframe or a less intense 17-week period.

The rebranding also was accompanied by a new marketing push which helped to increase enrollment across the school’s entire portfolio of online courses. “It’s a pretty significant uptick,” says Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School Online. “Obviously when we rebranded we let the world know about it through marketing and stories. So there was a lot of noise around it as well. But it has increased interest. It was pretty evenly distributed across all of our courses.”

In an interview with Poets&Quants, Mullane agrees that the highly positive survey responses helped to fuel the surge in growth. “That’s part of the reason we wanted to have that data when we announced the brand change because they reinforce each other,” he says. “One thing that has become apparent to me is that often when we think about transformational experiences in the business school world, the MBA is at the core. We all assume the way you transform people is you come to campus for two years. But transformation is in the eye of the beholder. There are a lot of people in the world who know they could never take the time off from work or come across the world to Boston for an education. This gives them the opportunity to learn new things. We’re excited about this.”


Despite the impressive growth, the school’s online initiative has yet to make a dollar of profit. According to the last annual report made public by Harvard Business School for the fiscal year 2017, ending June 30th, Chief Financial Officer Richard P. Melnick noted that “it will take several more years for HBX to become a surplus generating activity.” The school reported that its operating deficit on the digital learning initiative came to $11 million in 2017 on revenue of $12 million, after losses of $12 million on $10 million in revenue a year earlier.

Mullane says HBS Online is now doing “alpha testing” on two new courses, one in leadership and the other an economics course in global business. Those two new courses would bring the total portfolio of online offerings to 14.