The Stackable Online Course Portfolio

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Tuesday, May 11, 2021
By Brian Cameron, Stacey Dorang Peeler, Michelle Rockower
Photo by istock/UnitoneVector
By sharing courses across multiple programs, Penn State Smeal makes it possible for students to easily customize their educational experiences.
At Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in University Park, we have strategically integrated the components of our master’s program portfolio to give our students the ability to earn multiple credentials and degrees more quickly and affordably. We redesigned our graduate programs to embrace an integrated portfolio model that allows students to stack our courses and programs. In a 2020 article, we explained how our program teams collaborate by sharing courses and students across our portfolio. 

To make such a “stackable” portfolio work, we have created a culture devoid of internal competition among programs. We also have developed an internal atmosphere where the goals of “what’s best for the student” and “what’s best for our business school” intersect in ways that drive our day-to-day actions and long-term planning. In the process, the Smeal College of Business not only has significantly increased its enrollment, but also has created what we believe is an extraordinary experience for our students. 

One Portfolio, Multiple Possibilities

The courses in our portfolio can be stacked in ways that allow and encourage students to earn multiple credentials and explore different business disciplines. Many students start with a graduate certificate and matriculate into a master’s program.

For example, let’s say that a student initially takes the business management foundations certificate (12 credits). She then moves on to take the corporate innovation and entrepreneurship certificate (12 credits) and the management consulting certificate (6 credits). At this point, she would need to complete only a capstone course (3 credits) to earn the full 33-credit Master’s in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

In fact, Smeal offers 12 graduate certificates that are all concentration areas in this degree. This “plug and play” offering allows students enrolled in this degree program to customize their path. Our portfolio approach enables students to matriculate from one graduate certificate into multiple master’s programs.

Likewise, a student could earn the Master’s in Strategic Management and Executive Leadership by completing the strategic leadership certificate, the negotiation and influence certificate, and the sustainability certificate, and then adding one ethics course to meet all degree curriculum requirements. 

In most master’s programs, students choose a concentration. But why should master's students be limited to just a concentration when, through strategic course selection, they could wrap those courses into an additional credential? For example, a student might begin with our Master’s in Strategic Management and Executive Leadership. By choosing the right concentration and elective courses, or adding a few additional courses, the student could also stack on certificates in negotiation and influence, business sustainability strategy, business architecture, business analytics, and more.

Stacking Full Degrees

Our concentrations and electives are shared across programs to offer students maximum benefit. The program is designed to cost them less in time and tuition to attain specialty core knowledge and skills in two business disciplines.

For example, one of our most popular concentration options for the Penn State Online MBA (OMBA) has been in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship. By taking the three courses for the concentration within the OMBA, and the required core entrepreneurship course, students could graduate with the OMBA degree and a certificate credential.

In most master’s programs, students choose a concentration. But why should these students be limited to just a concentration when, through strategic course selection, they could wrap those courses into an additional credential?

But these same courses also count toward the Master of Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which makes it easier for students to earn a second degree under our concurrent degree option. A concurrent degree plan is an efficient way for students to stack their way to a specialty master’s degree, earn an online MBA with graduate certificates, or earn several certificates while earning a degree.

Students also can stack full degree programs. Take, for instance, our OMBA and Master’s in Marketing Analytics and Insights. If students pursued these degrees separately, they would need to take 78 credit hours; however, by stacking the two degrees together, students can earn both—as well as specialize in two academic areas—by taking only 63 credits. Because of the way courses are shared across concentration areas, a student can save 20 percent in time and tuition costs by combining them together.

Stacking the Online MBA 

We added stackable options to our OMBA program, mentioned above, during its redesign in 2017. At the time, the OMBA was brought under Smeal College of Business leadership. From our research, we knew that working professionals were seeking more customized, flexible online learning experiences that would allow them to complete their degrees at a pace that worked for their busy lifestyles.

So, we built the 48-credit OMBA program using 16 courses in established master’s and graduate certificate programs offered by Smeal and our Penn State business school partners across the state. These partners include the Black School of Business at Erie, the Capital College at Harrisburg, and the School of Professional Studies at Great Valley. The program is delivered via Penn State World Campus. The 13 core courses that all students must take encompass content covered by any reputable MBA program, such as accounting, finance, supply chain, and ethics. The remaining three courses make up the concentration, in which students choose one of our nine-credit concentration options.

As the OMBA program grew, we continued to talk with students about their reasons for choosing our program. Almost always, the top items they mentioned were flexibility, customization, and concentrations. When it became apparent that there was significant demand for even more customizable options, we strategically added concentrations to the initial 12—this time from both our partner business schools at Penn State and other units at the university. We now offer a total of 24 concentration options in the OMBA.   

Just as before, students can take multiple pathways into the OMBA or other specialty master’s programs. They can tie their electives to a certificate credential or concurrent master’s degree, or they can start another master’s program and then add the OMBA program as a second degree. Or they can “get their feet wet” via a graduate certificate and then transfer those credits into the OMBA. These credits will count as their electives or core course credits, depending on the certificate program they completed.  

Fit and Flexibility

These nontraditional educational pathways, particularly in our OMBA, tend to attract certain kinds of students. These students typically are experienced professionals who are already established in their careers and have busy family lives. They want to maximize ROI, and many know exactly what they want to achieve and why they want to achieve it.

As we guide these students through their options, our goal is always to get the best fit for each individual. For example, one mid-career student came to us initially to pursue the OMBA, seeking the tools to grow his own business globally. As an experienced entrepreneur, he also saw value in concurrently pursuing additional certificates. He worked with our team to craft a comprehensive plan that incorporated certificates in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, supply chain management, and business analytics. Upon graduation, this student will have completed five academic credentials in far less time than it would have taken him to pursue them independently.   

Another student, who is a manager for a nonprofit strategic investment firm that supports the technology needs of U.S. intelligence and defense communities, enrolled in our Master of Finance program. This student realized that the skills conveyed in the Master’s in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship program could fill a knowledge gap in the industry. We helped this student formulate a plan to earn both degrees concurrently. 

Students not only can tailor their educational pathways—they also can change to a different course of study mid-program. It is rare that we cannot work with students to identify alternate options should their goals change.

In addition, students not only can tailor their educational pathways—they also can change to a different course of study mid-program. Given how many courses in multiple programs overlap, it is rare that we cannot work with students to identify alternate options should their goals change.

From an operational perspective, this portfolio approach also offers a clear benefit to the school: If the OMBA program fills sooner than expected, we can offer students other certificate or degree options that they can apply to the OMBA in a future intake.

That was the case this year. We had unprecedented demand for our spring 2021 intake, so we had to close enrollment earlier than expected. Students who missed the cutoff had two options: They could push their start date to summer 2021 or they could start one of the graduate certificates in spring 2021. The latter option allowed them to earn credits toward the OMBA degree, so they would not disrupt their anticipated timeline toward degree completion. Our model allowed us to retain highly competitive students without sacrificing the quality of our program’s delivery.

Creating—and Maintaining—an Integrated Program

Designing a professional graduate portfolio with a wide variety of degree and certificate stacking options requires a great deal of coordination. For this reason, we have taken three steps to support the program’s success:

We designated a “portfolio architect.” This person is involved in all program design discussions and has portfoliowide authority to encourage, influence, and negotiate interdisciplinary integration and course sharing. In our college, our associate dean for professional graduate programs fills this crucial, central role. 

We developed a central service and advising model. This step is required to produce the synergies, services, and cost efficiencies needed to help students pursue many different educational pathways. These shared services should not reside in disjointed silos with differing reporting lines—they must be centralized and ultimately report to the portfolio architect.

We adopted comprehensive tracking systems. As our colleague Carrie Marcinkevage shared in a recent article, we have to be very diligent with our data reporting and constituent relationship management. We use tools such as Salesforce and other university systems to make educated predictions about where our programs are headed, tracking and projecting enrollments at the course, certificate, and degree levels.

As students pursue their individual educational pathways, all of them working at their own pace, we use course enrollment tracking to predict instructor needs, course capacity, and revenue. If a program or topic area experiences a decline in headcount or interest over time, we reevaluate that offering, adjusting or phasing it out as necessary.

We employ tracking not only to inform our decision making, but also to stay in communication with our students about their academic progression. If and when their needs change, we are ready to help them explore different options that better align with their changing aspirations. 

Education for an Evolving Market

A school must ensure that many pieces are in place to truly enable wide-scale, flexible degree stacking. If a school tries to embark on a comprehensive stacking model without taking the steps outlined above, its program design is likely to become departmentally siloed. If someone is not made responsible for coordination across departments, there will be little to no integration or course sharing. 

Adopting this level of program and service integration is not easy. But as the market evolves, it is likely that more students will be looking for programs that will allow them to stack credentials and customize their educations in ways that best suit their schedules, preferences, and professional objectives. 

Brian Cameron
Associate Dean, Professional Graduate Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Stacey Dorang Peeler
Managing Director, Penn State Online MBA Program, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Michelle Rockower
Managing Director, Online Specialty Master's Programs, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
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