What you should know about Harvard’s CORe business certification

BY Rich GrisetAugust 30, 2022, 6:31 PM
A view of the campus of Harvard Business School, as seen in July 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Once asked if Harvard Business School would ever engage in online offerings, Nitin Nohria, dean of HBS at the time, wasn’t subtle about his thoughts on the idea. “He said: ‘Not in my lifetime,’” recalls Patrick Mullane, the current executive director of Harvard Business School Online. “He realized the error of his ways pretty quickly.”

Not only has the top-ranked business school embraced online education, but its Credential of Readiness—or CORe program—has become one of the most popular in the field of online business education. A CORe certification is intended to allow graduates to achieve fluency in business. By the end of the program, students should be able to prepare and evaluate financial forecasts, understand a business’ financial health through financial statements, create pricing strategies, and analyze and interpret data to inform business decisions.

While putting Harvard Business School on your resume certainly won’t hurt anyone’s career prospects, Mullane stresses that CORe is a “selective, but not exclusive” way to get a leg up in the business world. “It teaches you the language of business so that you can be in the conversation and help contribute, whether that be at a cocktail party or in your job.”

What is Harvard’s CORe program?

Originally created as a primer for students who were about to matriculate into Harvard’s full-time, in-person MBA program, CORe eventually found a sizable following outside of future HBS attendees.

In this business fundamentals program, students take courses in business analytics, economics for managers, and financial accounting, then prove what they’ve learned through a final exam. Completed online asynchronously, CORe is a self-paced program that can be finished in either 10 or 17 weeks, depending on the cohort chosen by the student.

Potential students can apply online. Harvard usually offers six or seven CORe terms per year. Harvard estimates that potential students should plan to devote 8 to 15 hours per week to CORe. Each course costs $1,750; Harvard also offers all three CORe courses and the exam bundles together for $2,250.

In the business analytics course, students start with basic descriptive statistics and progress to regression analysis, learn analytical techniques in Excel, and use fundamental qualitative methods to solve real business problems.

In economics for managers, students learn how to evaluate market demand, make critical business decisions, and apply these skills in different business environments. In financial accounting, students learn accounting concepts and principles, read financial statements, and understand how accounting drives strategic decision making. The program is capped by a three-hour, closed book, multiple-choice exam.

Students usually begin each module with a video that details a problem that they must use deductive reasoning to solve. For example, a module may feature two publishing executives exploring what the introduction of Kindles meant to their industry.

“A lot of people really love the case method of learning,” Mullane says. “Learning through storytelling is the way I love to describe it.”

The program doesn’t allow people to race through the modules unabridged. New course modules open once a week, so participants must wait for a new module to drop and stay together with their cohorts.

Mullane says they count multiple “waves” inside each cohort. While cohorts may number around 200 to 300, each wave is only about six to seven people, which helps people connect with their colleagues. Because CORe is online, there is no limit on how many students it can accept; by contrast, Harvard’s MBA program is only offered in-person, and is limited in the number of students it can accept by its physical infrastructure.

Who attends Harvard’s CORe program?

The CORe program draws from three main pockets of people: those looking to get an MBA, entrepreneurs who may have tech skills but not business ones, and people already established in their careers, such as managers, who want to bone up on their business acumen, according to Mullane.

More than half of CORe participants are women. And roughly half of attendees are pre-MBA; the other half are professionals already working in the field, Mullane says.

Many students who are working professionals have families. “The asynchronous nature of it does make it a lot more accessible for people who can’t be tied to a particular schedule,” Mullane says.

While the age range of attendees runs from recent college grads to people in their 80s, the bulk of CORe attendees are college-aged to late 30s. Slightly more than half of attendees are from outside of the U.S.

As for paying for the CORe program, Mullane says a “pretty substantial” number of students receive compensation from their employers.

How past students feel about the CORe program

In interviews with past CORe participants conducted by Harvard, 80% reported it’s the best online business program they’ve taken and 65% said they’ve experienced more respect or influence in their workplace from having completed the program. Some 89% reported that their newly acquired skills were immediately applicable in the workplace, and 91% said they became more confident at work.

One such CORe graduate is Malachi Koop. A native of Nebraska, Koop initially wanted to be a pastor and attended a private bible college. After graduating, Koop decided he no longer wanted to be a pastor, but still wanted to help people through social enterprise, a term for an organization that attempts to help society while still making a profit.

Koop created Books for Chicago, a social enterprise venture that collected unwanted textbooks from colleges and universities and use proceeds from the sale to help nonprofit organizations in low-income areas of the city. Koop says the endeavor “failed pretty miserably,” in part because he didn’t have the business skills he needed.

“I heavily considered pursuing an MBA program but wasn’t sure if that was the right thing for me,” says Koop, who’s now a senior consultant at EY-Parthenon, a Boston-based global strategy consulting firm. “CORe helped to give me more experience with business concepts and allowed me to make the decision that getting an MBA was something I really wanted to do.”

Koop says the online business education market is “flooded with options, and a lot of them are really cheap,” but that he wasn’t sure they would have given him the same value and confidence in what he was learning.

“If you’re looking to just throw something on your resume and blow through it quickly, [CORe is] probably not an ideal fit,” he warns. “If you are looking to get engaged with the material and really increase your knowledge and skills, it’s a great program to pursue.”

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