Business MOOCs Are Great Marketing for Business Schools

Online business courses aren’t a threat to traditional B-schools.

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A new study out today in the Harvard Business Review has some good news for business schools: Online courses aren’t a threat to traditional MBAs. Quite the contrary, MOOCs (a/k/a massive open online courses) might turn out to be one of B-schools’ best recruiting tools.

Business MOOCs, the authors write, “do not appear to be cannibalizing existing programs but do seem to be reaching at least three new and highly sought-after student populations”: international students, foreign-born U.S. residents, and underrepresented U.S. minorities. Data suggest that MOOCs are far more effective than traditional business schools at signing up students from these backgrounds—not surprising, since they don’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

More than three-quarters of the 875,000 people who enrolled in an online course offered by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School came from outside of the U.S. That’s significantly more than the 45 percent of students who make up full-time MBA programs. Thirty-five percent of individuals inthe U.S. signing up for a course were foreign-born. Nearly 20 percent were underrepresented minorities, compared with 11 percent of students enrolled in MBA programs at nine top U.S. business schools.

Offering online courses could end up being a great marketing and outreach tool for Wharton and other business schools if the classes—which are more like introductory teasers—expose students from diverse backgrounds to B-school thinking and encourage them to apply for the real deal. “For business schools,” the authors write, “MOOCs are a tremendous opportunity to expand into underserved markets.”

Of course, there’s another reason why business MOOCs are unlikely to replace traditional B-schools: It’s not just about the courses. As any proper MBA graduate knows, partying, drinking, and most of all, networking also are a big, even essential element of the experience. Until universities find ways to deliver some of that element over the Internet, it seems unlikely that people will trade in a top B-school acceptance letter for an online curriculum.