Why don’t Wharton and Harvard have online MBA programs?

BY Kara DriscollApril 11, 2022, 2:16 PM
At Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., April 2020.
Adam Glanzman—Bloomberg/Getty Images

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced universities into remote learning in 2020, the experience got some MBA program administrators to rethink how they might better serve students in the digital age. New York University’s Stern School of Business, for example, announced in November 2021 plans to launch a hybrid MBA option, which will include a mix of online and in-person courses. 

With this new format, Stern will add to its existing offerings, which include a full-time MBA program (ranked No. 7 by Fortune) and top-ranked part-time and executive MBA programs. And yet, Stern is now the only top 10 business school to offer a hybrid MBA program. Expanding the list to the top 20 yields only a few more examples of schools with an online or hybrid MBA option—the University of California–Berkeley (Haas), Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper), the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler), and the University of Washington (Foster).

While many business schools are leaning into online learning, other top-ranked programs won’t transition to hybrid or full-time online classes anytime soon. If you’re hoping to attend Harvard Business School or the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—ranked No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, by Fortune for their full-time programs—for an online MBA, don’t hold your breath. And you’ll notice both are conspicuously absent from Fortune’s ranking of the best online MBA programs.

That’s because neither Harvard nor Wharton offers an online MBA program, and representatives from these schools tell Fortune they don’t have any plans to go the online MBA route, citing reasons like the burdens of changing their curriculum model, the lack of networking and relationship-building, and importance of bringing together students on campus. 

Unique learning models require in-person interactions

Harvard has no plans to offer anything other than the school’s two-year residential MBA program, Mark Cautela, head of communications for Harvard Business School, tells Fortune. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Harvard did offer hybrid classes in its MBA program so that some students could continue to attend class in person, but the majority could be remote. Nearly two years later, though, Harvard’s MBA students are back to class 100% in person.

“Students in our MBA program are immersed in a learning community that is enriched by the on-campus experience,” Cautela explains. “Classroom discussions carry on in the hallways and common areas after class, study groups meet in the morning over coffee to discuss the day’s cases, and students are able to convene in small groups across campus to socialize and collaborate on projects. These kinds of experiences simply aren’t replicable in an online program.”

HBS is known for its case method pedagogy, which it has taught for more than 100 years—a unique learning opportunity in which students read real business case studies, discuss the case, engage in class, and reflect on business decisions. The method helps MBA students develop communication, listening, analysis, and leadership skills.

Unlike during lectures, case method classes unfold without a detailed script—which isn’t conducive to online learning, Cautela says. The case study method features “cold calling,” where a professor calls on a student at random and asks that student to offer input for class discussion, and faculty lead lively class discussions in which students are encouraged to take risks and ask questions.

“The case method is engaging and fast paced,” Cautela says. “And the infamous HBS ‘cold call’ compels students to participate, allowing them to learn from not only the teacher, but also from their peers who bring a diversity of thought, talent, and experience in the classroom.”

Similarly, so much of the Wharton experience comes from being on campus where Wharton’s research and curriculum are focused on driving productivity, growth, and social progress. During their two-year, full-time experience, MBA students will interact with hundreds of classmates and faculty, according to Peter Winicov, senior director of media relations and reputation management at Wharton. 

Like Harvard, Wharton doesn’t offer a part-time or online MBA program, nor does it have plans to add either format, Winicov says.  

Wharton, Harvard offer ‘unmatched’ networking opportunities

While MBA students go to school for the degree and education, networking is also a big part of the experience. And Wharton and Harvard both offer unmatched relationship-building opportunities that cannot be replicated online, says Devi Vallabhaneni, managing director of consulting firm MbaMission and a Harvard Business School interviewer in residence.  

“The reason their admissions process is so intense is that they’re being evaluated on what they can contribute to the dialogue on campus,” Vallabhaneni says. “The socialization is so organic and natural that the word ‘networking’ almost doesn’t fit. It’s not as transactional. On campus, it feels very natural.”

Even so, Wharton and Harvard have embraced online learning—to an extent. Both schools offer several certificates and business education courses online. HBS offers online programs through HBS Online and some through its executive education program, allowing for further business education for those who wish to do so remotely. Meanwhile, Wharton offers an online digital marketing certificate course, in addition to several other programs.

While prospective students can’t enroll in an MBA program online at either Wharton or Harvard, there may be reason to hope that other top-ranked business schools will embrace online learning.

Vallabhaneni says it makes sense that Stern would offer a hybrid MBA program for working professionals in New York City, and online learning options could make sense for other programs like Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management because of their “significant, rigorous part-time program.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.