Written by Bryce Hammons, published on 2013-06-04

Darden. Harvard. Booth. Wharton. These names are synonymous with excellence in the graduate business school world: the most qualified cadre of students, top-notch professors instilling knowledge and leadership, and graduates who vault into the job market only to be snatched up before their resumes even touch an interviewer’s table. These schools are the true giants of the business graduate school world.

They show up annually on lists of the best ranked, from The Economist and Financial Times to U.S. News & World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek. Each of these ranking agencies presents their yearly picks for the top standard bearers for excellence in MBA learning. And there the names shine forth – Harvard, Booth, Wharton, Darden, Stanford and more.

Do the Top Graduate Business Schools Offer Distance Learning?

But for many students, attending these schools is just a pipe dream. The programs may be too expensive or too selective. Or students may simply be too busy with work or family concerns to forgo one to two years of working salary in order to get their MBA. Whichever is the case, these top-ranked programs often seem to beckon from far beyond the student’s reach. Today, however, the advent of distance learning courses has brought the prize of an MBA within the grasp of many students. They can work, set their own hours to accommodate family responsibilities, and still find time to participate in an online MBA program from any location that has an Internet connection and a web browser.

Now the question becomes: Are these top schools jumping on the online education bandwagon? According to U.S. News & World Report, a few are. Business schools such as Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University and the University of North Carolina have begun to implement distance learning to provide a viable option for graduate students looking for alternatives to campus-based learning. Let’s take a look at some of these graduate business schools currently blazing trails in the new world of online education. And, on the flip side, let’s delve into the reasons why some giants are sticking with their tried-and-true approaches of classroom-based learning. More choices for both campus-based and online MBA learning are just around the corner!

Penn State’s Intercollege MBA Program

Established back in 2002, the Penn State online MBA (iMBA) admits approximately 120 students per year, according to U.S. News & World Report. Many students interested in the iMBA – and similar online MBA variants around the country – tend to be further along in their careers and hoping to add points to their resume; most have no intention of making drastic career changes at this stage in their lives. They simply want to move up in their own organizations, and for them, the online MBA program serves the same purpose as an executive MBA: as a step up the ladder.

When they’re not carrying out one of the pair of on-campus residencies, students participate in school activities through web conferencing, multimedia, online forums and virtual team interactions. According to Penn State, iMBA students are actually finding that the online experience provides them more interaction than they would get on campus in the traditional two-year MBA.

Kelley Direct

According to Terrill Cosgray – executive director of Kelley Direct, the online version of Indiana University’s Kelley Schools of Business – many programs in the U.S. are actively exploring online options. The fact is that many top-tier business programs would like to follow in Kelley Direct’s footsteps. That’s because Kelley School of Business was the first top-20 graduate school to offer online education options to its students.

Kelley Direct still requires students to make the trip to campus for one week during each of their two years in the program. During these residencies they collaborate to create new business plans for companies ranging from tiny start-ups all the way to Fortune 500 corporations. To learn more about Kelley Direct programs, head over to their site.


Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management has spun off an online learning subsidiary: eCornell. There, busy professionals can earn certificates in a variety of areas – health care, HR management, marketing, accounting, leadership and strategic management, and more – in courses delivered 100 percent online to the comfort of students’ own homes/workplaces/coffee shops/etc.

University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Offering a partial distance learning option for its executive MBA students, Ross asks them to complete an extended residency at the beginning of each academic year. Later, they need to return about once a month in order to complete Friday/Saturday residency requirements. In between, students take advantage of distance learning opportunities that allow them to learn on their own schedules.

University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

While their traditional 21-month MBA does not offer an online component, Darden offers approximately one third of their Executive MBA program through distance learning: online courses, virtual group meetings and exams. Their Global MBA for Executives (GEMBA) offers a part-time distance learning option, as well.

University of North Carolina (UNC)-Flagler Business School

Observing the virtue of prudence, officials at UNC’s Flagler Business School bided their time until they were convinced that available technology was capable of supporting a fully interactive educational experience for their online students at the same level of quality as their traditional, classroom-based MBA. In 2011, that time came and the UNC online MBA program was born.

Harvard Says, “No Thanks!”

Still, many of the top-ranked MBA programs around the country still haven’t budged when it comes to tradition. Harvard Business School is one of those that have held back from providing their students with online opportunities. Why so, Harvard?

Ranked number one by many ranking bodies, Harvard places top importance on the discussion-based nature of their MBA programs, which involve face-to-face interactions between professors and students (in addition to students networking with each other). And they simply don’t believe these can be replicated solely online. In their view – which, you have to admit, must be given due consideration, coming as it does from the number-one school – the shortcomings of today’s technology render it impossible to transport this immersive learning environment to an off-site location without the student losing out on the personal interaction that makes the Harvard experience so special.

And the Rest Say..?

Harvard is not alone in their thinking. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management feels much the same way: they don’t offer any distance learning courses at all, due to the hands-on nature of their program and the necessity for teamwork in a classroom setting. Lining up with them are Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the University of Pennsylvania’s The Wharton School, MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and others in the upper echelon of graduate business education. In the case of MIT’s Sloan School, a master’s degree in system design and management (SDM) is the only MIT degree program which can be finished mostly through distance education, according to their 2012-2013 course catalog.

So some schools are working to integrate the new technology to move with the shift in trends, while others are standing by the tried and tested. In the end, what is really best for students? Is it on-campus, online, or some blended variation of the two? According to recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the blended options for students may just offer the best of both worlds. But for now, students who can’t make the trip to many of the top schools will just have to wait and see what those bastions of excellence will do as distance learning continues to expand its domain.

What’s Truly Important: More Options for the Prospective Student

If we have shown you a few starter options to help get you going on a path toward success, then we’ve done our job. At least you now have more avenues to follow in pursuing your MBA dream. When enough time goes by and technology improves, even the more cautious business school giants will undoubtedly turn their sights toward online options. When that time comes, as we’ve seen with Kelley, Cornell, Penn State, UNC and others, you will have even more choice when it comes to which kind of program – 100 percent online, blended, or campus-only – is an ideal match for your MBA needs.