Meeting Market Demand for Stackable Credentials

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Tuesday, December 8, 2020
By Brian Cameron, Michael Waldhier, Teresa Avery
Photo by iStock
The Smeal College of Business has added greater flexibility to its resident and executive MBA programs, allowing students to earn multiple credentials more quickly and efficiently.

Publications ranging from Forbes to U.S. News & World Report have described stackable degrees as the future of higher education. Stackable degrees are growing in popularity primarily because of their flexibility—they allow students to earn multiple credentials that can be applied toward full degrees over time.

But while more universities are adding short-format certificate programs for working professionals to their portfolios, few have integrated those programs in ways that make stackable professional graduate degrees possible.

In October 2019, at the Penn State Smeal College of Business in State College, we introduced an integrated professional graduate portfolio that allows students to earn multiple credentials as they work toward two-year MBA degrees. Since then, we have learned how to stack course content in ways that provide greater value to students—and that help differentiate our MBA programs in the market.

A Flexible Advantage

Most courses in our integrated graduate program portfolio exist in some form at our peer schools. However, it is not as common for schools to combine their courses in ways that allow students to pursue dual degrees in just two years. But in today’s market, students want to take as little time away from their careers as possible and squeeze every drop of value out of their educational experiences. This makes it more important for business schools to design their graduate programs with flexibility and combination in mind.

In this respect, we benefited from the fact that none of our programs are owned by a single department. Instead, all programs are collaboratively designed by the Office of Professional Graduate Programs (PGP), which houses both online and resident graduate options in the Smeal College. The PGP centralizes key functions such as admissions, advising, and strategy under single leadership. As a result, there are no silos to break down and no battles between departments for students, services, or revenue.

With no interdepartmental competition, there is a shared understanding that revenues from enrollment benefit everyone, so staff from different programs have an incentive to help students find the program that works best for them. This understanding creates a culture where everyone works to create an optimum result for the entire college, rather than where every program must look out for itself.

Two Stacking Pathways

Students typically follow one of two possible educational pathways in our integrated graduate programs:

Stacking courses. Across all resident graduate programs, students not only select primary concentrations, but also have the option to choose from a curated menu of more than 20 certificate programs focused on topics such as sustainability strategy, corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, management consulting, and business analytics. They can take these courses in person, online, or via a mix of the two.

Within the MBA program, these offerings are integrated as electives in the second year of the curriculum. MBA students can also customize their programs by taking coursework from other colleges on campus, although this introduces additional challenges due to departmental differences in course timing, prerequisite requirements, and revenue sharing. Still, every year students choose to take advantage of this flexibility to pursue unique combinations and interests.

Earning dual degrees. Because of the way our programs are designed, students can also pursue multiple master’s degrees sequentially in a reduced time frame. This is possible because many of our required core MBA courses—statistics, accounting, management communications, and ethical leadership—are shared across our one-year programs in organizational leadership, corporate finance, real estate, and business analytics. This enables students who choose to pursue secondary master’s degrees to waive repetitive pre-requisite coursework and shorten the total amount of time needed to achieve both degrees.

Students want to squeeze every drop of value out of their educational experiences.

Additionally, because all resident master’s programs pull from a similar list of electives, our resident MBA students can earn an additional master’s degree concurrently in the second year of the program. This pathway is not necessarily easy—the required credits increase from 54 to 72—but for enterprising students who wish to earn two degrees in two years, it is a powerful option.

Finally, some of these stacked components are STEM-certified, which can make international students eligible to apply for the Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM (STEM OPT). STEM OPT allows our international students to extend their visas for an additional two years after graduation while employed at U.S. companies. A popular option among these students is to combine an MBA with a master’s in business analytics.

The Stackable EMBA

Now that our MBA program is fully stackable, we have turned our attention to our Penn State Smeal Executive MBA. This 17-month EMBA program typically attracts mid-career professionals, and its curriculum largely focuses on strategic leadership. Students begin with a one-week residency at Penn State University’s Park campus, before then taking courses on alternating weekends at a conference center just outside of Philadelphia. Students are divided into teams that work together across multiple classes for about six months, before they switch to new teams.

Because our EMBA follows this cohort-based, team-based, and fixed-schedule format and takes place more than three hours from its parent college, it has been more challenging to convert it to a degree-stacking model. For example, it’s more difficult to cross-reference courses from one program to another because we do not want students to skip certain classes so that they can take others. That outcome would disrupt the flow of our student teams and the overall cohort experience.

For that reason, we have started by offering a stackable option that would disrupt the program as little as possible. In 2018, we offered students who enrolled in the incoming class of 2020 the opportunity to pursue an online graduate certificate after they finished their EMBA coursework. This would allow them not only to earn a second credential, but also to add a second concentration to the program’s typical strategic leadership focus.

To make it possible for students to add this credential to the EMBA, we first had to create a system for tracking student eligibility to take an online certificate (EMBA students must finish their graduate certificates within three years of graduating). We also had to map out each required course in the EMBA program to determine which courses would overlap with the requirements of one or more of the ten available graduate certificates; in this way, we could help students finish the certificate program as efficiently as possible.

In addition, we found that some of our EMBA students needed help making the transition from a high-touch, in-person program to the online environment. To provide this support, staff, faculty, and learning and design professionals who work on our online programs collaborated to create an online hub for our EMBAs. The hub includes a sample class and videos that explain online practices and vocabulary (such as the difference between asynchronous versus synchronous classes), as well as links to other university resources. We also hosted a live question-and-answer session for students during their last semester.

Increasing Integration

The option to add an online certificate to the EMBA program has proven popular. In 2018, we enrolled a larger-than-normal EMBA cohort, up 42 percent compared to our average enrollment over the previous five years. Several students began taking online graduate certificate classes in the spring of 2020, the last semester of their program. Others began taking online courses over summer semester.

Our next step is to extend the opportunities in degree stacking for our EMBA class of 2022. This class will be able to combine either a graduate certificate program or a secondary online master’s degree with their EMBA degrees. We have developed a process that will allow students to apply up to six credits of their coursework from the EMBA toward a second master’s degree within Smeal, without disrupting the cohort model.

As students explore the different pathways, we can have in-depth discussions with them about their interests and dreams for their futures.

We will continue to integrate courses into our EMBA program even more fluidly. In the future, we expect to be able to allow EMBA students to take the final semester of the program fully online. We also plan to create a process by which the EMBA can more easily accept credits from other programs, allowing students to earn two master’s degrees more quickly and cost-effectively.

Although we are still early in the process of stacking our EMBA courses, we anticipate strong interest in certificate programs such as corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as marketing analytics and supply chain management. We also have seen an unexpected benefit of offering a portfolio of stackable offerings—they help us get to know our current and prospective students even better. As students explore the different pathways, concentrations, and credentials available to them, we can have in-depth discussions with them about their interests and dreams for their futures.

Stacking the Future

It’s worth noting again: Developing a stacked graduate curriculum is not possible without cooperation among multiple administrative areas within the college. We have had to work closely with our colleagues in online education, learning design, financial aid, the graduate school, and more. But as we have built out these student options, we have only increased our ability to work together to support an exceptional student experience.

We are just getting started with degree stacking, but we anticipate that, in a few years, approximately one-third of our professional graduate students will be stacking degrees and graduate certificates. Early indications have shown us that stackable master’s degrees and graduate certificates will appeal to an increasing number of prospective students—and differentiate our programs in a competitive market.

Brian Cameron
Associate Dean, Professional Graduate Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Michael Waldhier
Managing Director of Resident Graduate Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Teresa Avery
Managing Director, Executive MBA Program, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
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