AACSB vs. ACBSP Accreditation

Should applicants care about the accreditation of an MBA program to which they might apply? Before answering that question, let’s first review what accreditation means for both business schools as well as applicants.

Educational accreditation means that a university offers a curriculum which adheres to quality assurance standards in academic disciplines. Accreditation ensures that “education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Accreditation consists of two types: institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation usually pertains to an entire college or university, while specialized accreditation pertains to component schools, departments, or programs within such an institution.

In the United States, external private, non-profit organizations evaluate educational institutions and certify that the schools comply with applicable standards by awarding accreditation status. Several organizations worldwide award accreditation to business schools and programs, including the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP).

Overview: The AACSB and the ACBSP

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) has provided quality assurance services to accredited business schools since 1916, and was founded by a consortium of top-notch schools. Its founding institutions included Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and New York University. Initially, the consortium selected the “American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business” for their name.

This organization emphasizes faculty research in delivering students solid knowledge foundations. The AACSB has awarded accreditations to about 780 schools in 90 countries, mainly those affiliated with major research universities, and awarded specialized accounting program accreditations to an additional 185.

The newer Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) was founded in 1989 to accredit schools, including two-year institutions like community colleges, with an emphasis on teaching and applied knowledge instead of the research emphasis common to the AACSB-accredited institutions. The ACBSP focuses on tangible learning outcomes and quality improvement, especially as workforce demands change. Around 3,000 ACBSP-accredited programs exist worldwide.

Side by Side Comparison: AACSB and ACBSP

Does MBA Accreditation Matter?

Yes, absolutely! Accreditation should matter to potential MBA program applicants, and here’s why.

Some commentators argue in favor of ACBSP’s achievements. They point out that in only 30 years, the ACBSP brought an emphasis on educational standards commensurate with an accreditation process to almost 3,000 programs whose academic structures and lower operating budgets likely prevent them from ever receiving AACSB accreditation. That does seem like a significant accomplishment.

However, MBA program applicants would be wise to realistically assess the potential impact of AACSB accreditation when considering business schools. That’s because when making hiring decisions, potential employers pay close attention to the reputation of the MBA program that graduated a particular candidate. Moreover, as explained below, AACSB accreditation wields a powerful influence on the reputation of universities and business schools in several ways.

By illustration, Poets and Quants editor John A. Byrne states,

At the very least, you need to ensure that the program you’re considering has been accredited by the AACSB, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. For business schools, it’s pretty much the only accreditation that matters. It is the oldest and largest global accrediting body for business schools. Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Wharton, all the big guys are accredited by the AACSB. Everything else is beside the point.

Although Byrne’s appraisal might seem brazen, substantial evidence supports his assertion.

In general, AACSB-accredited schools have the highest-quality faculties, deliver relevant and challenging curricula, and provide educational and career opportunities not found at other schools. Only about five percent of the 16,000 schools worldwide granting business degrees have met the AACSB’s rigorous “gold standard” accreditation requirements, and AACSB-accredited institutions offered 90 percent of the Economist’s 2016 top 100 full-time MBA programs. Moreover, the Financial Times reported that 96 percent of its profiled FT500 CEOs attended an AACSB-accredited school.

AACSB Accreditation Advantages

Academic Research

There’s substantial academic research supporting the contention that AACSB-accredited schools offer MBA students and graduates several significant advantages.

High Quality Faculty

In general, AACSB-accredited universities offer better quality faculty. Roller et al. (2003) reported that deans and chairs of schools from both AACSB- and ACBSP-accredited schools agreed that AACSB accreditation helps with faculty recruitment. Additionally, Roberts et al. (2006) reported that faculty hired after a school achieved AACSB accreditation overwhelmingly disclosed their preference for working at such an institution; they also revealed that AACSB accreditation helped their school obtain appropriate faculty.

Professional Examination Performance

An indirect yet persuasive measure of graduates’ capabilities involves performance on professional licensure examinations, like the CPA Examination.

Lindsay and Campbell (2003) found higher CPA Examination pass-rates among graduates of AACSB-accredited schools. In addition, Howell and Heshizer (2008) found that AACSB accreditation significantly correlated with passing the CPA Examination in fewer attempts. Furthermore, Barilla et al. (2009) found that separate AACSB accounting accreditation led to increased success rates of first-time CPA candidates.

Employment and Career Benefits

But will AACSB accreditation help MBA graduates fare better in their careers? The research suggests they can.

Kim et al. (1996) and Olbrecht and Yeaton (2011) found higher starting salaries for graduates from AACSB-accredited schools. Also, Kohlmeyer et al. (2011) found that employers were much more willing to hire an individual with an online accounting degree if the program had AACSB accreditation.

And in 2006, Intel Corporation announced it would only reimburse tuition for employees to attend AACSB-accredited programs (not AACSB-accredited).

Reputation and Accreditation

Finally, recruiters say two closely related factors, a school’s reputation and accreditation, are typically more important than the way the MBA degree was earned, such as whether a graduate earned the degree through an online program. Moreover, AACSB accreditation indeed constitutes a vital component of a school’s reputation. For example, Wolk (2007) pointed out that U.S. News and World Report and other ranking authorities consider AACSB accreditation, but do not consider accreditation by other accrediting boards.

Although in 2018 there might still be some human resources and hiring executives unfamiliar with accreditation, those executives certainly know the names of the “best” business schools. And in any definitive ranking list—including those published by U.S. News, the Economist, and the Financial Times—AACSB-accredited schools are of the highest quality.