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What’s on the Horizon for Graduate Management Education?

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “Change is the only constant in life.” In that spirit, graduate management programs are being more aggressive than ever in evaluating their offerings to ensure they not only reflect the evolving business landscape but also prepare their students and their own departments for future change.

It’s no secret that a confluence of factors is putting pressure on graduate management programs. Questions about the value of an MBA degree, desire for more flexible curricula and corporate demands that MBA students have demonstrable skills — not merely credentials — are just a few of the factors causing graduate management education (GME) administrators to re-think their business models and practices. Kate Klepper, associate dean of Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, sums it up as follows: “We’re right in the heart of disruption, which is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.”

From prix fixe to à la carte MBA programs

In a recent Liaison webinar, Northeastern’s Klepper was joined by Tad Brinkerhoff, director of admissions at University of Illinois Gies College of Business, to discuss how their institutions are repositioning programs to meet both business and student demands while being mindful of the short and long-term consequences. One of the biggest changes has been diversifying away from traditional, full-time MBA programs towards more flexible offerings. Online courses, one-year specialty programs and modular approaches seem to be increasingly favored. But Klepper and Brinkerhoff raise important questions about these newer alternatives. “Does the specialty degree come at the expense of the general skills needed to be a business leader? Will it lead to getting an MBA later or be a substitute?” Klepper posits. Of additional concern, what impact do changing business models have on a program’s economics? For example, the online program at Gies currently has 1,500 students enrolled vs. 166 students in its full-time MBA program. “We’re still figuring out how we’re reinventing ourselves,” says Brinkerhoff. “How do we meet student expectations but at the same time remain efficient?”

MBA – Yea or nay?

The MBA credential has also come under scrutiny in recent years. Today’s buzz phrase is “social responsibility” and students are looking at GME programs with a more critical eye. Millennials also aren’t sure an MBA is needed to be successful. As such, GME programs are trying to develop more effective value propositions to attract applicants. Brinkerhoff recounts an applicant asking, “With so many MBAs out there, is it worth it?” He answered that since employers still pay a premium for the MBA talent Gies brings them that yes, there is still value. Klepper advises that schools need to know what they’re good at and what they have to offer that’s of value to students. “From there you can position data and stories that will connect with applicants based on the interests they express.”

The push-pull of school rankings

The annual contest to get a good school ranking in publications such as U.S. News & World Report is another pressure felt by GME staff. While publications use different methodology and criteria to determine rankings, prospective and current students, alumni and corporate recruiters use the rankings with little regard for the process. Those who score well get the attention at the expense of those who fall lower on the list.

For better or worse, rankings often influence program choices and admissions criteria. A growing wave of GME programs are joining the test optional or test neutral (GMAT or GRE) bandwagon; but does that choice jeopardize a program’s ranking if one of the criteria used is average GMAT scores? Moreover, today’s ranking rubrics don’t include categories reflecting trends such as the growing demand for social responsibility courses or diversity in the classroom. Brinkerhoff contends that graduate management schools should have more say on how rankings are determined as behaviors are influenced by them.

Testing the waters

With so much in flux, Brinkerhoff asserts that GME programs must be nimble, but that can be a challenge because most institutions have an “in for the long haul” mentality.  One approach that has proven effective for Northeastern has been the creation of short, non-credit electives. In this way, the school can test new classes and see what resonates. “I can bring data on these electives back to our administration and say this is what we’re seeing,” states Klepper.

At the end of the day, Klepper and Brinkerhoff agree that in order to make change happen, buy-in from the school’s leadership is essential. In addition, both suggest partnering with other departments within your institution. “Let others know what you’re doing and why. See if there’s a way you can both benefit. Not everything needs to be built right in the business school,” concludes Klepper.

To hear Tad Brinkerhoff and Kate Klepper’s entire discussion on managing the changes taking place in the GME space, watch the on-demand webinar What’s on the Horizon for Graduate Management Education.