What’s the true value of an online MBA? And does it provide a good return on your investment? Well, if you earn that degree at a school accredited by the AACSB, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, chances are you’ll be treated by future employers just like any on-campus student earning an MBA.

[Check out our ranking of the Best Value Online MBA Programs.]

The AACSB, by the way, is a voluntary, non-governmental accrediting agency that oversees the standardization of collegiate schools of business and accounting nationwide.

The AACSB has served as the academic watchdog of university business programs since 1916. Because of its longevity, many venerable Ivy League business schools are accredited by the AACSB. Stanford University, Yale University and Duke University, for example, all operate AACSB accredited business schools. (Of these, Duke University, for example, offers a distance-learning, low-residency MBA.)

Among academics and corporate headhunters, the AACSB is considered the gold standard of business school accreditation. Only about 30 percent of business schools in the USA carry AACSB accreditation.

If your career goal is to become faculty at a business school, you’ll probably need to consider an AACSB-accredited MBA or business degree.

Outside of academia, this specialized accreditation is less crucial—unless you intend to compete at the executive level, especially in the Fortune 500 arena.

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A qualitative study using grounded theory methodology was designed and conducted using 20 semi-structured personal interviews of hiring managers from a cross-sectional sample of business sectors in the state of Wisconsin. Three research questions were the foundation of the study, but for purposes of this posting, only the second question used in the interviews are relevant. For the record, the three questions were:

1. What are the perceived factors that give value to an MBA degree?
2. What are the perceived factors responsible for influencing the perception of the value between an MBA earned online and one earned in a traditional classroom setting?
3. How are the perceived factors that influence the value of a MBA different between for-profit and nonprofit schools?

The responses to the questions were interesting. Of the 20 participants, 10 responded that they considered online and traditional MBAs as having equal value. The other 10 responses from the participants showed that four viewed the interaction between students as a factor making the traditional MBA more valuable, two believed the robust discussions in the classroom added a greater value to the traditional MBA, and one thought that the individual who did their MBA in the traditional setting was more serious about their degree. None of these respondents made any reference to the ability to use computers to have real time interaction and discussions with other students.

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So given the improving perception of an online MBA by employers, is the ROI worth the expense?
In the hierarchy of virtual, online, MBA programs, there is one key caste distinction: On the mass-market end are online-only schools like University of Phoenix — for-profit businesses with tuitions of $20,000 to $30,000.

On the elite end are online programs at brick-and-mortar educational institutions, including Duke’s Fuqua and Indiana’s Kelley, which have equally stringent entrance requirements for their online tracks as for their residential ones, including GMAT scores and minimum years of work experience. Their programs cost anywhere from $7,065 (Chadron State College in Nebraska) to $135,500 (Duke’s Fuqua School). Note that online MBAs at brick-and-mortar schools aren’t any cheaper than full-time programs at the same school; in fact many are more expensive.

So now we come to what really counts: Your ROI. As we have said all along (and you already know this)… your earning power is greater if your online degree comes from an elite school. Here are the statistics concerning earning power. But remember, although schools like Harvard have online coursework, they do not offer completely online MBAs.

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For the most part, the results are exactly what you would expect: The highly ranked, big brand schools tend to deliver the highest earnings over a 20-year period. Harvard Business School’s MBAs come out on top, with median income of $3.233,000. Stanford MBA holders are next with $3,011,000, and Wharton comes in third with $2,989,000.

Harvard MBAs, in fact, earned nearly twice as much as MBAs from Texas A&M’s Mays Business School who pull in $1,781,820 over 20 years.

Note, Harvard this past summer offered its first business online program, HBX core Business courses. It’s not a formal 100 percent online MBA…but it is quite interesting, isn’t it?
And as Harvard business goes…so goes the world.

Are online MBAs worth it? If you do due diligence, you betcha.