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With more than 66% of postsecondary institutions offering distance education courses, the popularity of online degrees is growing at an exponential rate. Online MBAs are some of the most commonly offered degree programs, and though it appears there are many programs that can lead you to the same end result, you should be diligent in choosing a program that will translate into true value once you graduate.

One of the best indicators of quality for an online MBA program is accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Established in 1916, the AACSB is the oldest and most respected accrediting agency for business schools. By evaluating the faculty, curriculum, and students’ achievement, the AACSB ensures that schools offer a well-rounded and in-depth education. Only about 30% of business programs are AACSB accredited. Of the 620 member institutions, 69 offer online MBA programs.

In order to receive accreditation from the AACSB, schools must undergo a review process and meet certain accreditation standards that are reevaluated every five years to ensure continuous quality and improvement.

Admissions

Schools that are AACSB accredited must demonstrate the implementation of selection standards such as:

  • Minimum GMAT scores
  • Minimum GPA
  • Proof of written communication skills
  • Foreign language proficiency

There are no set admissions requirements dictated for schools, but selection standards ensure that students are prepared for the rigor of a master’s degree program and that contributions to research and discussions within the program are high-caliber.

Curricula

As part of the review process for AACSB accreditation, a school’s curriculum will also be evaluated for comprehensive and relevant course material. Topics covered in a general management program should include, but are not limited to:

  • Information technology
  • Statistical data analysis and management science
  • Finance theories and methods
  • Global, environmental, political, economic, legal, and regulatory context for business

Faculty

Faculty must be professionally and academically qualified. They are evaluated both on an individual and collective level according to their intellectual contributions to the field. Qualifying and measurable contributions could include, but are not limited to:

  • Articles in peer-reviewed journals
  • Scholarly books or chapters in scholarly books
  • Instructional software that is widely used
  • Textbooks

Because the same standards are applied to all of a school’s programs when they are accredited, choosing an AACSB-accredited online MBA program ensures that the same faculty members who teach in the full-time MBA program will be teaching distance education courses. In addition, AACSB looks for quality interaction between these faculty members and the students to ensure a high standard in the level of instruction received. This is a crucial factor when choosing an online MBA program.

Finally, schools are evaluated on the ability of graduating students to demonstrate both a theoretical and applied knowledge of their field of study. Graduates should have the capacity to:

  • Lead in organizational situations
  • Apply knowledge in new and unfamiliar circumstances through a conceptual understanding of relevant disciplines
  • Adapt and innovate to solve problems, to cope with unforeseen events, and to manage in unpredictable environments
  • Understand management issues from a global perspective

Schools may measure this aptitude through a variety of methods including, but not limited to, writing assignments, capstone business-strategy courses, final exams, and thesis projects.

If you are planning to pursue a career in academia or are trying to move up the corporate ladder, then you should ensure that your school is AACSN accredited. If not, an online MBA can still be a great asset. Employers may look for a degree from an AACSB-accredited school when evaluating applicants, especially in a competitive job market. Additionally, if you are looking to take advantage of a tuition reimbursement program with your current employer, they may only pay for courses at an AACSB-accredited institution.

While it is true that AACSB-accredited schools typically have higher tuition rates, an average of $32,926 compared to $22,924 for regionally accredited schools, you may find it will pay off in the long run due to increased earning potential.

For example, the average starting salary for graduates of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, which offers an online MBA, was $102,056 in 2010. This is significantly higher than the general average of $66,000 for MBA graduates reported by Bloomberg Businessweek the same year.

However, there are also many state schools offering AACSB-accredited online MBA programs that could provide an excellent return on investment for more budget-minded students. In fact, a study by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) showed that students who graduated from MBA programs not ranked in the top 50 saw a 20% return on investment, compared to 12% for students who attended top 10 programs. Students with degrees from top 10 programs did, however, maintain an edge in long-term earning potential.

By pursuing an online MBA, you are investing in yourself. Choosing an AACSB-accredited program can be one of the easiest ways to ensure you are setting yourself up to get the best return on that investment. So do your research ahead of time to ensure you choose the right online MBA program for your needs.