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Do you have dreams of unveiling your company’s new product onstage at a press conference? Or ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange at your internet startup’s IPO?

Maybe your dreams aren’t quite as fairytale-esque, but revolve around more realistic things, like getting in the trenches with coworkers and helping them see how a company could be run better. Or recruiting new employees who turn out to be superstar contributors. Or developing strategies that outpace competitors.

Whether you’re reaching for success on Wall Street or Main Street, a business degree will help you understand what it takes to get there as well as help build your skills to do it. A business degree is not the only path to business success, but it will prepare you for specific tasks and challenges in a way that other degrees will not.

And for people looking to save money (good instinct for a future business exec!) or retain their flexibility, going online for your business degree might make a lot of sense. Traditionally, going to college has meant trading in years of work experience and earnings for an education, which is usually worth it.

But now, you don’t have to choose between a job and an education—you can do both!

You may not know that online degrees are oftentimes identical to traditional, residential degrees. But it’s true.

Most colleges that are serious about their online programs don’t distinguish between them on the diploma, because their rigorous in-person classes are taught by the same professors who teach online courses.

“Things have changed,” according to a U.S. News & World Report interview with Susan Fontana, a vice president at the global recruiting firm Manpower. Online degrees, she says, are “so much more accepted today.

Are Online Business Courses Worth It?

If you can’t spend the time or the money for a graduate degree in business is an online course or program the next best thing?

After all, taking an online course from a big brand business school doesn’t require weeks or months of studying for a standardized test. You can do it without having to quit your job or make long sacrifices of time from your family. And it costs just a fraction of what you would pay in a full- or part-time MBA program, or for that matter, an online MBA or Executive MBA program.

Of course, a single course or even a small collection of online courses isn’t the same as a full-fledged degree program, whether residential or online. It's certainly not going to get you any of the jobs open the top MBA graduates. Forget about opportunities at McKinsey, Google, or Goldman Sachs. But can it boost your career or give you the business basics and confidence to speak with authority on business issues? 

A new study of nearly 1,000 online student learners at Harvard Business School has shed some important light on these questions. Published yesterday on Jan. 8th, the study by City Square Associates demonstrates the value of the Harvard brand as much as it does the value of online education. The big surprise: The career and personal benefits reported by students mirror and, in some cases, exceed those commonly reported for far more expensive and time-consuming degree programs.

One in four of the respondents said they have received a promotion of a title change as a result of the Harvard online course they completed.  More than half said it led to an increased scope of work, and even more surprising, one-third said they were able to transition into a new field. No less important, one in two respondents said they have received increased attention from recruiters. Those are objectives commonly sought by applicants to most MBA, specialty business master’s and non-degree executive education programs.

In fact, the results of the survey are so positive that they are likely to cause a good bit of heartburn to deans of second- and third-tier business schools (see Why Business Schools Should Worry About This New Harvard Business School Study). If one of those schools is offering a part-time or online MBA program, why wouldn't one of their potential students opt instead for an online course from Harvard to get the glitter of that powerful business brand on their resume?

The study's other results are also compelling:

96% of students said the online course they took led to personal betterment 

91% said it improved their professional life 

90% believe it made them a more confident leader 

90% said it increased their knowledge of business terminology

93% believe it bolstered their resume 

The highly positive findings surprised even HBS officials. “It’s understandable that an MBA would give people the opportunity to make a big pivot in their careers, but I never would have expected that students in a non-credit, non-degree course or program would have those kinds of outcomes,” says Patrick Mullane. executive director of Harvard Business School Online. “What we are doing has had impact.”

In the five and one-half years since the launch of its first online offering, nearly 40,000 students have taken taken a long distance course from Harvard Business School. The school, moreover, has expanded its online course catalog to a dozen options that range from a three-week-long course on Sustainable Business Strategy costing $950 to an eight-week dive on Scaling Ventures with a price tag of $4,500. HBS’s very first online play, the bundled trio of business fundamentals in business analytics, accounting and managerial economics, dubbed CORe for Credential of Readiness, has now been completed by more than 22,000 students, including nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs.

For many who can’t spend either the money or time in a full-time business program, the online courses could very well be the next best thing. “We tend to get a sense that something can’t be transformational if it’s not a two-year residential program,” adds Mullane. “But transformation is really in the eye of the beholder and we need to be cognizant of the fact that the way we think about it is not the way others will think about it. In the main, people say that it has changed their careers and lives.

“The value is there for people who need just enough business education to allow them to ask the right questions and speak intelligently about business,” believes Mullane. “Someone who is business inclined and just needs some pointed basic education in negotiations, finance or entrepreneurship, can get what they need and have impact fairly quickly.  I met a guy who was a minister in a church in the south and he realized that managing a church is like managing a business. And he found CORe incredibly valuable. That is where it delivers the value well beyond it’s punching rate.”