Online MBAs aren’t new this decade. Some schools have been doing virtual learning since the days of VHS cassettes arriving by snail mail. But as usual, when Harvard gets involved, it changes the whole game.
HBS Online launched as HBx in 2014, rebranding in early 2019. Though it does not yet offer an MBA, it is an undisputed leader in online graduate business education. HBS’ flagship program is the Credential of Readiness, a 10- to 17-week boot camp of interactive learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills development taught by HBS professors, but HBS Online also offers courses in business analytics, global business, and much more. By December 2019, 70,000 students had completed an HBS Online program and about 28,000 had taken CORe; at any given time, between all available courses, HBS Online supports between 5,000 and 8,000 students in hundreds of countries around the globe. Nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs completed CORe before starting their MBA experience.
The core appeal of CORe, however, is its accessibility. The program schedule is flexible: CORe can be completed in as few as 10 weeks or as many as 17, with typically nine starts per year, or one every one to two months. The shorter program involves 12-15 hours of study per week, and the “Extended CORe” generally involves eight to 10 hours. The cost for both is the same: $2,250. Most importantly, there are no gatekeepers: no GMAT, no GPA threshold, no interviews to gain admission. “The beauty of the online platform,” Senior Associate Dean Debora Spar says, “is that, in theory, it enables you to reach people who otherwise would never be able to come to Harvard Business School campus.”
Hard to believe that just a few short years ago, STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — was an unfamiliar term at most business schools. But now, with every top-25 B-school in the United States having established a STEM pathway in its MBA, STEM is a permanent addition to the portfolio of graduate business education offerings. Credit where it’s due: Wisconsin School of Business was the pioneer, adding a STEM concentration in 2016, and a year later the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School took things a step further, designating their entire MBA STEM. That earned the Simon School our 2018 Program of the Year honor.
STEM has a lot of appeal for B-schools. Schools big and small in the U.S. have embraced it as a way to mitigate the losses of Indian, Chinese, and other indispensable international student populations that have dwindled in response to heated political rhetoric, higher tuition and cost of living, and other negative factors. Designating all or part of their MBAs and specialized master’s degrees as STEM allows B-schools to lure international students with the promise of legal standing to remain in the U.S. three times longer, making it an easy and popular move — if not nearly enough to offset the larger antipodal forces driving down both application volume and international enrollment.
STEM is popular with domestic students, too. After all, employers prize the quant skills that come with a STEM degree.
Rochester Simon paved the way, leveraging its quant-heavy curriculum with a strong focus on analytics and economics to gain STEM designation. It helped that from the business school’s earliest days, Simon adopted an academic approach that has leaned heavily on economics and the application of empirical research in every business discipline. But since its world-shaking move, all the top schools have followed suit, recognizing the value employers place on STEM grads — and therefore the value of producing them.
In 2015, when the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business announced it would offer a $22,000 online MBA degree, rival business schools were stunned. The price of the school’s iMBA program was by far the lowest of any major university’s online MBA at a school that typically ranked among the top 50 for its full-time, on-campus MBA.
Despite the bare-bones price, Gies put its most senior faculty into the online courses, having them hold weekly live Internet classes and office hours, with occasional city meetups between students and faculty, and a portfolio of elective courses with eight different specializations, including a new data analytics track in spring 2019. All for a price at which rival programs are generally stripped down digital textbooks with no live classes, trips, or electives.
The (predictable) result: The ranks of applicants and students in Gies’ iMBA program exploded. While applications to U.S. MBA programs declined steadily from 2015 to 2019, Gies’ iMBA enrollment has grown to more than 3,000 students from 92 countries and six continents, after a debut cohort of just 114 students. The success has inspired imitators: Boston University Questrom School of Business, partnering with edX, took in the first cohort for its new $24K online MBA just this month.
It looks easy. But as Illinois Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown told P&Q last year, it’s the result of a lot of hard work.
“We’re selling a Tesla for the price of a Hyundai,” Brown said. “Deans tell me, ‘Man, I don’t know how you can do this.’ Well, four or five years ago if we had known how hard this was going to be we might have been scared from doing it.”