Business Education’s Inevitable Transformation

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Monday, June 20, 2022
By Jeffrey R. Brown
Photo by iStock/AsiaVision
If business schools don’t adapt now to current market forces and changing technology, we will render ourselves obsolete.
  • New technologies and student preferences are disrupting the traditional educational model, but business schools aren’t changing fast enough in response.
  • Students need multiple entry and exit points into and out of a river of education.
  • Degree programs won’t go away, but more students will seek short credit-bearing credential courses.

Not too long ago, Blockbuster Video was an integral part of global culture. Its aisles were packed with customers perusing the boxes of movie rentals, and its blue-and-yellow signs were ubiquitous everywhere from the United States to New Zealand. But when online streaming disrupted the video rental industry, the company was unable to pivot, leading to its irrelevance and its current status as pop-culture punch line.

That same fate could await higher education institutions if we don’t recognize and embrace the forces of disruption all around us. The education market is changing right in front of our eyes, but too many colleges and universities remain rooted in the same practices and business models they’ve kept in place for literally centuries. Leaders in higher education must innovate and adapt now—or perish. In other words, we must stop being like Blockbuster and become more like the next generation of streaming services.

The Challenges We Face

One of the major challenges to traditional education is the number of new competitors in the market. Technology has improved online learning so much that schools are not just competing with other educational institutions within our regions; we’re also competing with colleges and universities around the globe.

At the same time, new competitors have entered the market in the form of a vast array of alternative credential providers from the private sector. Many of these organizations are pouring billions of dollars into promising new educational technologies. Some of these emerging innovations and business models will complement the efforts of forward-looking institutions, while others will disrupt our core operations.

A second challenge to traditional education also stems from today’s dizzying pace of technological change. Areas such as data analytics, machine learning, augmented reality, blockchain, and quantum computing are transforming jobs, organizations, and industries at an unprecedented rate.

In the past, someone could earn a degree at the age of 22 and be set for an entire career. Today, that idea has become as antiquated as a VCR.

To stay current in the job market, students must learn new skills. In the past, someone could earn a degree at the age of 22 and be set for an entire career, perhaps taking a single break to earn a graduate degree. Today, that idea has become as antiquated as a VCR.

Instead, the educational journey should look less like a structured pipeline and more like a “braided river.” There should be multiple entry points and distinct routes that repeatedly join and separate, as described in an article earlier this year in Eos. This river would flow at different speeds for different people, but ultimately it would allow all learners to reach their desired destinations.

To compete with global education providers and meet the needs of 21st century learners, business schools need to find their spots along this river. We must revamp our educational offerings so that we provide the training students need, when they need it, in formats that serve them best. And we need to do so in a way that expands access and makes high-quality learning available on a global scale. I explored both of these ideas in a recent white paper titled “It’s Time to Transform Higher Education.”

The Solutions to Consider

As business schools, we must make it a priority to broaden our array of educational products and credentials to offer shorter, quicker options than our typical undergraduate and graduate programs. To be clear, college degrees will not go away. But a full degree isn’t for everyone; often, learners simply need to upskill in one area.

To meet the needs of learners like these, Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is creating a series of online, credit-bearing graduate certificates. These 12-credit-hour certificates will allow learners to choose specific areas of focus and engage with top faculty in the exact same courses our degree learners take.

By expanding our credentialed offerings, we are supporting learners who are seeking greater flexibility and preparing people to succeed in a rapidly changing job market.

We are offering two certificates for August enrollment—accounting data analytics and strategic leadership and management—and plan to launch up to six more within the next year. These courses not only will serve learners seeking short, standalone credentials, but also will provide students with an option to stack those credentials into degree programs. Because these courses are for credit, learners may be eligible for loans or tuition reimbursement from their employers.

By expanding our credentialed offerings, we are able to support a population of learners who are seeking greater flexibility. We also are providing new pathways to degree programs and better preparing people to succeed in a rapidly changing job market.

The Changes Ahead

Leaders in business education need to think creatively about how to make education more expansive and less expensive. Credentialing programs might not be the only answer, but they’re certainly one option to consider.

Fortunately, technology is opening new ways for us to drive down costs and expand access. Through high-quality online programming that is as engaging as—or, in some cases, more engaging than—residential programs, we can deliver a life-changing education to anyone, anywhere. This same technology allows us to operate at scale, which means we can provide valuable educational opportunities to learners at a much lower cost.

Ultimately, higher education providers must evolve to provide learners around the globe with multiple streams that can serve as entry points into the educational river. Such a model will allow learners to weave education into their careers and their lives at the times, places, and paces that suit them best.

I know firsthand that it is possible to provide high-quality, engaging, and affordable higher education in a way that delivers results for learners, faculty, and the broader institution. We can transform lives if we’re willing to think about higher education delivery in a different way—one that doesn’t cling to an antiquated business model of the past, but that embraces an innovative, inclusive vision of the future.

Jeffrey R. Brown
Dean and Josef and Margot Lakonishok Professor, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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