A Guide to Online MBA Accreditation

A quality stamp from an external body can reassure prospective students, but it is not enough on its own to convince them to apply

Given that prospective students may spend a six-figure sum on an Online MBA course, a quality stamp from a third party will give them some reassurance that the investment they are making in themselves is worthwhile. But business schools and their degree programs are assessed in different ways by multiple accreditation agencies, so how do you work out which is the best choice of school for you?

There are three main accreditation bodies that assess the business education industry: the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD) in Brussels; the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a US-based agency; and the Association of MBAs (AMBA) in London. While AACSB and EQUIS accredit the entire school and all programs offered, AMBA accredits only specific programs.

The aim for many schools is to secure the so-called “triple crown” of AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS accreditation, a feat held by only one percent of schools worldwide. But each rubber stamp will take considerable effort and expense, a process that includes a rigorous external review of the curricula, faculty and the school or program’s mission.

Accreditation is voluntary. While most institutions see the value in gaining multiple endorsements, many of the world’s most revered institutions, including Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, have just one: from AACSB.

But ESMT Berlin is a relative outlier because it has the triple crown. The school’s new Online MBA is one of the few digital degrees accredited by AMBA. Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs at ESMT, insists the effort is worthwhile, because it shows applicants that the program they are about to start has been vetted and approved by a group of experts. 

While an accreditation does focus on internal processes, it is also an external quality label. “We are very proud to be part of the one percent of the world’s business schools holding all three accreditations. Membership of this elite group is a clear signal of school, program, and quality. It should give a student confidence in their decision to study,” says Loades.

“However, despite there being some commonality between accreditations, there are also differences,” she adds. “It is these differences – in philosophy, in what is evaluated, if the accreditation is at the school or program level, and in how reviews are undertaken – that create value for business schools.”

What are the differences between the MBA accreditations?

For example, many consider EQUIS to be one of the most comprehensive institutional accreditation system. It covers all the activities of a school, including degree and non-degree programs, knowledge generation and contribution to the community. AACSB focuses on global prosperity and creating impactful leaders, in addition to industry connections and curricula relevance and the quality of faculty and courses. AMBA’s accreditation philosophy is centred on impact, employability and learning outcomes.

“Accreditation bodies take a very detailed look into the curriculum, faculty, organizational structure, admissions procedures, marketing activities, student services, career services, research, student interviews, and much more,” says Loades. “The journey to accreditation is a costly one, with much driven by the significant effort required from the school or program seeking accreditation.”

But many schools are seeking as many accreditations as possible, which reflects the competition for students in the business education market. Spain’s IE Business School also holds the triple crown of AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS accreditations. “We think it is very worthwhile,” says Marta Perez, senior director of program experience and operations at IE, noting that prospective students factor accreditation into their decision of where to apply.

“We believe it is a factor. It’s not the only one, but for sure it’s very relevant for any student,” says Perez. “Our students look for quality in everything that we deliver, including excellence in the assurance of the learning process, which is one of the focal points of accreditations.”

IE, which offers a top-ranked Online MBA, has been accredited for over 20 years. “For IE, quality is very relevant and accreditations provide us with a framework to assure quality in terms of governance, faculty, research, curriculum, students and social responsibility,” Perez adds. “Each of the three accreditations has a slightly different scope but all of them aim to comply with the assurance of learning that we believe every academic institution needs to offer to their students.”

The most relevant costs are those needed to ensure compliance with the quality standards and continuous improvement process. But while accreditation will give prospective students some reassurance, it is not enough on its own to convince them to apply for a competitive MBA place: career outcomes are usually the top consideration.

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