If you plan to spend big on an MBA at a top school, an accreditation can be a good way to judge the quality of the course. But with so many accreditation bodies, how can you tell which school is best for you?
The three best-known business school accreditors are the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB); the Association of MBAs (AMBA); and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS).
Of these organizations, EQUIS and AACSB apply to business schools as a whole, while AMBA is a programmatic accreditation—it accredits individual programs.
Although these accreditors began in different areas—AACSB was launched from the US, AMBA from the UK, and EQUIS from Europe—they all work with schools all over the world. For instance, there are EQUIS-accredited business schools in over 40 countries, including Australia, China, and Costa Rica, among others. Likewise, AMBA works with schools in over 70 countries and more than 800 business schools in over 50 countries hold AACSB accreditation.
MBA accreditation: how does it work?
For a business school, it is a considerably long and costly process to secure accreditation from each of the three main organizations.
Many of the world’s most revered business schools, including Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, have only one accreditation (AACSB). So why would a school seek all three, and should prospective MBAs factor that into their decision of where to apply?
Professor John Board, dean of the UK’s Henley Business School, says that securing the so-called “triple crown” of AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS accreditations is worthwhile. “The three bodies assess and approve slightly different things,” he says.
“For example, AACSB has a great focus on participants and the learning process, AMBA focuses more on the MBA as a program, while EQUIS has a broader interest on the business school as a whole,” he says. “This means that having triple accreditation is quite different from having the same accreditation from three bodies.”
Some schools are seeing a decline in applications to their full-time MBA programs, particularly in the US, so securing accreditation is also a way for schools to differentiate themselves and secure the best candidates.
Board says that students base their choice on a wide variety of factors — one is the quality of the school and “accreditation is a key indicator of quality”.
Beyond that, working towards accreditation can help business schools actually refine their MBA offerings.
“Accreditation,” says Board, “provides us with an opportunity to re-evaluate and continue to enhance our offering; we are a better business school because of this,” he says.
It will come as little surprise, then, that plenty of top business schools are striving to achieve maximum accreditation. Eighteen business schools have achieved AACSB accreditation for their programs so far this year, according to Stephanie Bryant, chief accreditation officer at the organization.
[Related: MBA Accreditation: Why is it Important?]
This is not an easy nor short process, with schools achieving AACSB accreditation in four to five years, on average. AACSB assesses, among other things, a school’s mission, operations, faculty qualifications, contributions and programs.
It is not cheap to achieve accreditation, either. A five-year process might cost a typical business school $46,250 USD in dues and fees, according to Bryant. In addition, a school might spend $28,000 on a review and mentoring process to ensure quality standards are maintained, she says.
Despite the costs involved, Bryant maintains that AACSB has a positive relationship with its rival accreditation bodies. “We view other accrediting bodies as also contributing to the betterment of business education,” she says.
The value of business school accreditation
IESE Business School in Spain has achieved all three accreditations. The value of seeking additional accreditations is that it can help a business school gain a foothold in overseas markets, says IESE’s MBA admissions director, Pascal Michels.
“One of the three main accrediting bodies, EQUIS, is European, so it is normal that most triple accredited schools would also be European,” he says. “Depending on their target market, it is also natural that top European programs would seek accreditation from US-based accrediting bodies to gain additional credibility outside of their home market.”
He adds that “AMBA is more focused on MBA processes, while EQUIS and AACSB are focused on different strategy aspects”.
Michels says that a quality stamp is reassuring for applicants, particularly those outside of a candidate’s home country. “With the number of MBA programs around the world now in the thousands, accreditations are a useful mechanism to provide assurance of a program’s quality,” he says. “In the absence of a global regulating body for MBA programs, accreditations, along with rankings, help people to identify the highest quality programs globally.”
Competition for students may have driven the trend of business schools seeking multiple accreditations, but Michels adds that students should not use an accreditation as the only factor when choosing a program or school.
There are currently roughly a thousand schools with either one of the three main accreditations (AACSB, EQUIS, AMBA) and more than 80 schools with the triple accreditation. MBA candidates generally apply to between two to five MBA programs – so a huge amount of research is needed to narrow down choices, even after going for multiple accredited schools.
“Depending on a candidate’s profile and need, there will be a mix of brand, geography, career outcomes and financial considerations that will come into play when deciding on a school,” says Michels.
“Ultimately, the final choice of which school is best will very much be driven by cultural fit.”