Accreditation is not required or necessary, nor does it ensure that a school is better than a non-accredited school.
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Tom Meltzer

March 10, 2021

Think about MBA accreditation like you'd think about groceries. Buying ‘certified organic’ produce eliminates the guesswork, and (most) people like that.

In many countries, the terms "college" and "university" are legally protected and can only be applied to institutions that meet specific standards. That's not the case in the United States, however, where anyone with the brass to call a school a university is free to do so (remember Trump University?).

That's why accreditation organizations are so important. These independent, nonprofit associations look at a school's student body, faculty, retention and graduation rates, facilities, curricula, and alumni satisfaction to determine whether the institution meets accreditation standards. Accreditation assures that a school has been reviewed by experts and deemed sufficient to offer degree programs.

Accreditation is not required or necessary, nor does it ensure that a school is better than a non-accredited school. It's like the designation 'certified organic' at the grocery store. It's possible that the uncertified organic product is also organic, and may even be "more organic" than the certified product. It simply means the product has been submitted to inspection and passed the standards set by the organization that certifies organic status. It eliminates the guesswork. Consumers like that.

MBA accreditors, however, evaluate only Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs (and, in some cases, accounting programs). Different accreditors emphasize different qualities, and schools predictably seek accreditation from whichever agency values their strengths. Accreditors review both traditional and online MBA programs. Some schools acquire multiple accreditations in order to demonstrate their strength across all criteria.

In case you're wondering who keeps an eye on the accreditors: it's the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), headquartered in Washington DC. CHEA member institutions—degree-granting colleges and universities—keep an eye on it.

Who accredits MBA programs?

There are five major accrediting organizations active internationally and six regional accreditors in the United States, listed below.

The Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)

When the ACBSP was founded in 1988, only 15 percent of business schools were nationally accredited. That's because the primary accreditation agency at the time, the AACSB, emphasized faculty research in its decisions, thereby favoring larger, research-oriented universities. The ACBSP places more emphasis on the quality of teaching and post-graduation outcomes. Through it many worthy smaller institutions have become accredited business schools. The ACBSP and the AACSB are the two most highly regarded accrediting bodies in the United States.

The Association of MBAs (AMBA)

Based in London, the AMBA accredits over 240 MBA programs in over 70 countries. Only one of those programs is in the U.S. (Hult International Business School). AMBA is most active in the United Kingdom (40 programs), China (32 programs), France (21 programs), and India (13 programs). AMBA reports that it accredits only programs that rank among their nation's top 2 percent.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)

Founded in 1916, the AACSB is the oldest MBA accreditation organization in the United States. The AACSB looks for full-time faculty "with advanced research credentials and an active record of ongoing scholarship," meaning that its process favors larger research-oriented universities. The ACBSP and the AACSB are the two most highly regarded accreditors in the country. AACSB accreditation, held by 530 graduate business programs, is the more common certification in the United States

The European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS)

Like AMBA, EQUIS is largely focused on MBA programs outside the US. Only three U.S. MBA programs have EQUIS accreditation (Babson College, Bentley University, and Hult International Business School). The organization accredits 96 programs in Europe, 34 in East and Southeast Asia, 13 in Australia and Oceania, and 12 in Central and South America.

The International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE)

Another international accreditation organization, and like the ACBSP, it was created to counterbalance the AACSB's emphasis on research. IACBE strongly considers MBA student outcomes in awarding accreditation. The IACBE accredits 140 business schools in the US (mostly smaller institutions serving predominantly local student bodies); the organization is also extremely active in the United Kingdom.

Regional accreditation

Unlike national MBA accreditors, regional accreditors accredit institutions, not MBA programs. Regional accreditation organizations are typically older than the national MBA accreditors and thus have more deeply established reputations, particularly within the region they govern. There are six regional accrediting agencies:

  • The Higher Learning Commision (HLC) oversees Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
  • The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) oversees Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
  • The New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) oversees Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  • The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) oversees Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
  • The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) oversees Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Latin America.
  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges University Commission (WSCUC) oversees California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Basin.

Is Accreditation Necessary for MBA Programs?

Technically, no; it is possible for a non-accredited institution to deliver an excellent MBA. In reality, however, most quality MBA programs seek and receive accreditation from at least one accreditation organization. Some top programs seek "triple crown" accreditation (from AACSB, AMBA, and EQUIS).

There are, however, arguments against accreditation. The accreditation process can be costly to schools, particularly with regard to the labor involved in preparing for review. And there are hidden costs as well: in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Southern New Hampshire University President Paul J. LeBlanc points out that accreditation drives up faculty salaries and drives down teaching loads. For some institutions, these hidden costs outweigh the boost in prestige that accreditation provides.

That said, all things considered, you should probably choose an accredited MBA program when you pursue an MBA degree. Accredited programs are more likely to offer a high-quality education than unaccredited programs. If you think you might want to pursue an additional graduate degree after the MBA, be aware that most graduate programs only recognize accredited MBA degrees. Make sure to check a program's accreditation status before applying.

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