The History of Online MBA Programs

Published September 15, 2022 | OnlineMBA.com Staff

The History of Online MBA Programs

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Harvard University first offered formal MBAs in 1908, but the degree originated in the late 19th century. The nation's first business school, the Wharton School of Business, opened its doors in 1881 but did not offer graduate degrees. Meanwhile, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College began offering advanced degrees in business and management, setting the foundation for what would become the MBA.

Through the 20th century and beyond, MBA programs became common offerings at institutions of higher learning worldwide. Correspondence education, distance learning, and degrees "in absentia" preceded online programs developed alongside the proliferation of the internet. Online programs soon took on asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid delivery methods.

Early online education was more the exception than the rule, but as society has become more mobile, online offerings have only increased. According to Inside Higher Ed, nearly 52% of college students in the United States took at least one online course in 2019-2020.

Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, California, pioneered distance education during the 1980s in subjects such as education, health, social welfare, and global policy. Similarly, online degrees emerged across disciplines. With this in mind, we asked the question: how did online MBA programs start? This guide offers a history of online MBAs.

The Beginning of Online MBA Programs

Online courses and computerized learning environments took shape during the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1987, Aspen University in Denver, Colorado, launched the first online MBA. As more schools began offering online programs to accommodate adult learners and working professionals during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, they also offered business degrees.

Initially, online programs offered by schools like the University of Phoenix used CompuServe, a computer time-sharing service founded in 1969. The introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 prompted education to shift to the internet. The establishment of the Asynchronous Learning Networks under the auspices of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation the following year propelled the "anytime, anywhere" model of education even further.

By the mid-1990s, online MBAs accommodated the 100,000 students enrolling in advanced business degrees in the U.S. alongside on-campus offerings. Asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid components were all part of early online learning. Many of the earliest online programs integrated evening classes and weekend requirements but allowed enrollees to keep working while earning MBAs.

Traditional MBA programs last two years. They include core and advanced coursework to deliver comprehensive business expertise. Online programs similarly include core business classes with advanced and specialized coursework not always available to traditional MBA students. Taking classes online could expedite MBA completion timelines and may allow for part-time enrollment.

Programs with specific focuses, like the MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship developed by the University of Calgary during the 1970s, signaled the increased need for business specializations. Additional MBA concentrations in areas such as accounting, healthcare administration, leadership, and marketing soon emerged as well.

The Evolution of MBA Programs

While MBAs have changed over time, many core elements remain the same. The evolution of MBA programs mirrors developments in business, education, and the increasingly global landscape. Several important dates highlight key moments in the history of online MBAs.

  • 1881: The Wharton School of Business was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the first collegiate business school in the world.
  • 1900: Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College awarded a master of science degree, the predecessor to the MBA.
  • 1908: Harvard University established the first MBA at the Harvard Graduate School of Business administration.
  • 1915: The first African-American MBA student at Harvard Business School, Wendell Thomas Cunningham, graduated.
  • 1916: The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) was founded.
  • 1921: Warton established the world's first business research center and enrolled the first group of students in its MBA program.
  • 1943: The University of Chicago Booth School of Business offered the first executive MBA for business professionals.
  • 1950: The Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in Canada launched the first MBA outside the United States.
  • 1955: The first MBA was offered at an Asian institution by the University of Karachi in Pakistan.
  • 1957: The Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires was established in Fontainebleau, France, and enrolled its first MBA class two years later.
  • 1962: Harvard Business School began accepting women to apply to the MBA program.
  • 1987: Aspen University offered the first online MBA.
  • 1988: The Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) was founded.
  • 1997: The International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) was founded.
  • 2021: Full-time enrollment in online MBA programs topped residential enrollment for the first time.

Today's Online MBA Programs

From 2019-2022, enrollment in distance education programs increased by more than 90%, per Inside Higher Ed. The need for online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic also increased the number of available programs, types of courses, and the overall composition of institutional offerings.

According to Fortune, the number of accredited online MBAs grew by 85% from 2016-2021, reaching 526 programs. Inside Higher Ed reported that, in 2021, enrollment in online MBAs topped on-campus programs for the first time.

Schools offering online MBAs may receive regional or national accreditation. Programmatic accreditation for MBAs attests to a program's overall quality and may come from one of three accrediting bodies for business degrees: AACSB, ACBSP, and IACBE.

Business schools have also adapted their coursework to the workplace and contemporary events. Today's online MBAs accommodate full-time and part-time students through asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid formats. Asynchronous MBAs allow learners to complete degree requirements on their time, while synchronous MBAs include scheduled elements and may feature cohorts of students. Hybrid MBAs blend online and in-person components.

During the first year of an online MBA, students complete core classes in topics such as management, accounting, finance, and organizational leadership. Advanced courses in niche aspects of business allow enrollees to learn in-depth knowledge and skills about areas that match their personal and professional goals.

Alongside general MBAs, many online MBAs include specializations. Pursuing an MBA concentration can expand employment options, help students move into new areas of the business profession, and advance to managerial and executive roles.

Concentrations in online MBAs include information technology, project management, and internet marketing. Enrollees may also explore international business, healthcare administration, and environmental management.

Online MBA Program Costs

Costs of an online MBA vary by institution based on public vs. private status, location, and enrollment period. The most expensive online MBAs appear within some of the top business schools in the country.

An MBA student at Harvard pays over $150,000 annually, while learners MBA students at the University of Michigan pay about half of that price. An online MBA, however, can reduce overall degree costs. Estimated expenses at institutions like Missouri State University for an entire MBA are less than $14,000.

Online MBA students can enjoy accelerated degree timelines. This shortens the length of time until the learner can put the degree to use in the workforce and see a return on their investment. MBA graduates, according to The Princeton Review, double their salaries after earning advanced degrees.

Part-time and asynchronous MBAs also allow students to keep working as they earn degrees. This can alleviate potential debt accrued by taking time away from the workforce to enroll in graduate school.

The Future of Online MBA Programs

Interest in online MBAs shows signs of decline, according to a survey conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council. Despite this, the associate dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern School of Business aims to integrate online components into MBA programs as part of the institution's continued efforts to meet student needs. Along with adding more flexibility to MBA programs, business schools are increasingly shifting to digital management techniques.

Business scholars Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava echoed this sentiment in an article for the Harvard Business Review in November 2021 and offered suggestions for how existing MBAs can adapt to the changing marketplace. Executives told Fortune in July 2021 that programs with an emphasis on international development, diversity, and data-driven decision-making are needed.

Common Questions About the History of Online MBA Programs

Are online MBA programs respected?

As the number of online MBA programs has grown, the reputability and respect they receive from peers and potential employers have likewise increased. Online MBAs are viewed as ideal for meeting the needs of working professionals and equal to their on-campus counterparts.

Is it better to get an MBA online or in person?

Earning an MBA online carries the same prestige as an in-person degree. The best MBA is the one that matches your personal needs and professional goals.

When did MBA programs start?

MBA programs began in the late 19th century, although the first MBA was not offered until 1908. With the establishment of the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard hosted 80 students in its inaugural MBA class that year.

Why was the MBA degree created?

Early business programs were created to help transform business from a trade to a profession. In the U.S., the Wharton School of Business and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth set the foundation for what would become an MBA before Harvard created the first MBA in 1908.


Featured Image: andresr / E+ / Getty Images

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