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The best way to think about business schools is through the lens of brands. A business school with a global brand is an engine for the efficient generation of dollars and prestige. A business school with a regional brand will have to work much harder to prosper and thrive.

In surveying the landscape of online education among business schools, I’ve developed three initial hypotheses.

Hypotheses No. 1: Top business schools are attempting to use online education to protect, scale and monetize their existing global brands.

Hypothesis No. 2: Business schools with regional brands are trying to use online education to differentiate their offerings and to generate new revenues.

Hypothesis No. 3: Online education will end up being the most important mechanism for some regionally branded business schools to grow their brand equity, moving toward national and global brand status. Others will be hurt in the process.

Of these hypotheses, No. 3 is the most important for the future of graduate business education, and the most speculative.

With regard to hypothesis No. 1, there is a lot going on at the top business schools with regard to online education. Data points include:

Wherever one looks on the website of a top 20 business school, one finds online programs prominently featured. These programs are more likely to be nondegree, either open online programs that are largely low cost and self-paced, or high-cost online certificates that are cohort based and instructor led. Some of these top schools are starting to offer their core M.B.A. programs online, but this is still a minority. In short, there is a lot going on with online education at globally branded business schools -- and it is necessary look beyond the usual suspect of Harvard’s HBX to get the lay of the land.

For hypothesis No. 2, online learning at business schools with regional brands, the story is more about degrees than certificates. Business schools outside of the top 20 are likely to offer online M.B.A. options. They are also likely to offer specialized M.B.A. degrees.

Some examples include:

This brings me to hypothesis No. 3. Here I hypothesize that we are likely to see a resorting of business school brand equity driven by online education.

At this point, my evidence to support this hypothesis is pretty thin. This question deserves a deep dive. I offer this hypothesis only tentatively in this space. But there are some important data points.

One indication that online education may change the business school game, the brand game, is what is going on at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon. Tepper is rising in the M.B.A. rankings. The school has also invested to building a high-quality and innovative online M.B.A. program. It will be worth keeping an eye on Tepper and other business schools that are leveraging online education to develop truly global brands. I would not be surprised if, in a few years, business schools such as Babson, Drexel and Northeastern manage to build their online M.B.A. programs into global brand players.

Online education offers risks, as well as opportunities, for regionally branded M.B.A. programs.

First, we may see a substitution of nondegree online certificates/alternative credentials from top 20 business schools for full M.B.A. degrees from regional institutions. It may make more sense to pay for a $19,000 Stanford certificate than a full degree from a business school that is not nationally or internationally known. On the other end of the scale, business schools with regional brands should be very concerned about low-cost degree programs. The $22,000 iMBA from the Gies School of Business at the University of Illinois comes quickly to mind.

Business schools that are unable to grow their brand equity beyond their immediate geographic area will be squeezed in between global brands offering certificates (which will be more and more accepted by employers), and newly nationally branded business schools offering low-cost degrees.

Both global and regionally branded business schools are likely to significantly grow their online education footprint in the coming years. They will do so for different reasons.

The level of focus, investment and execution that business schools bring to their forays into online learning will be, I believe, the most important determinant of shifts in relative brand equity up and down the business school status hierarchy.

If you care about online education, business schools are increasingly where the action will be.

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