Competitive Edge: The Business School Advantage

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Wednesday, July 12, 2023
By Andreas Kaplan
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
How can traditional business schools prevail against alternative education providers who offer shorter, less expensive programs?
  • Business schools can differentiate themselves from agile new rivals by creating holistic learning experiences that integrate all aspects of the educational journey.
  • In particular, business schools should do more to make sure students benefit from internships, international travel, and student societies.
  • Career services departments must transform into fully staffed hubs that synthesize a variety of student experiences.

The COVID-19 pandemic had the collateral effect of accelerating the digital transformation and disruption of higher education. As a result, established management schools now face a serious threat from educational alternatives in the edtech and big tech sectors.

As an example, at the outset of the pandemic, tech juggernaut Google launched its Career Certificates training programs, which cost participants 39 USD per month for six months of online coursework. Upon successfully completing the program, participants are guaranteed job interviews at Google—opportunities that typically are given to graduates of four-year bachelor’s programs. Among Google’s corporate partners, 150 also are promising to provide interviews. The appeal of a six-month commitment and a few hundred dollars in fees becomes obvious when contrasted with the cost of four years of tuition at a traditional business school, which can exceed 100,000 USD.

Another new alternative provider is ThePower Business School, a Spanish startup founded in 2017 with the self-proclaimed aim of revolutionizing and democratizing education. This nonaccredited online MBA program, which costs only 999 USD, already has an annual enrollment of 25,000 students.

It’s a tale as old as time: Innovative newcomers gradually replace established brands; renowned practitioners take over from experienced pedagogues; the quantity of a network supplants its quality. Even the fact that an organization is not accredited can be considered an advantage, because an institution can be more flexible and agile if it is not limited by the strict rules imposed by accreditation bodies.

There are some indications that these new players in management education have a large potential market. A recent study by Carrington Crisp, a consultancy specializing in higher education, found that nearly 40 percent of respondents would consider continuing their studies with alternative educational providers rather than enrolling in a traditional MBA program.

Thus, there is reasonable concern about whether business schools can justify the cost and length of their programs, and whether they can remain competitive enough to attract students. After all, research suggests that academic achievement and grades do not accurately predict managerial success or job performance. This is the main point of a 1971 article in the Harvard Business Review that references a 1964 thesis by Gordon Marshall, then a doctoral student at Harvard Business School. After monitoring 1,000 Harvard Business School graduates, Marshall found that “academic success and business achievement have relatively little association with each other.”

Given these concerns, do established academic institutions need to consider shorter, more affordable study programs in order to stem the threat of educational alternatives? Not necessarily.

Beyond Academics

There is a straightforward solution here that might appear simplistic: Business schools must ensure that their undergraduate and graduate students have a higher chance of succeeding in the business world than students who have earned only inexpensive and easily obtained certificates from alternative education providers. This means providing students with experiences that go beyond academic content to help them become the responsible, skilled, and well-rounded leaders of the future.

Business schools must ensure that their students have a higher chance of succeeding than students who have earned only inexpensive certificates from alternative education providers.

In short, business schools can compete by creating holistic learning experiences that organize, coordinate, and integrate the various activities that make up the educational journey. Business schools must become hubs and facilitators for a range of student interactions that cannot be matched by short online programs. Only then can schools justify expensive tuition costs and lengthy study periods.

Naturally, many administrators would contend that their schools already offer students a range of valuable experiences. But most institutions still need to make a significant effort in three areas: internships, study abroad opportunities, and student societies.

Partnering on Internships

In many management programs, students complete internships that provide them with their first insights into real professional life. Because alternative education providers generally do not offer internships, these experiences are key differentiators of institutional programs.

Of course, business schools do not simply hand students their dream internships on silver platters. Typically, students do the work of contacting their preferred employers, leveraging the support of the school’s career services team for help in writing good CVs and cover letters. However, schools increasingly are outsourcing that support service to edtech platforms such as JobTeaser or Jobs2Careers.

There is nothing to prevent participants in ThePowerMBA or Google’s Career Certificates program from searching for internship opportunities to strengthen their résumés. And they, too, can improve their CVs and cover letters with the help of edtech platforms. So how can business schools make sure their internships set them apart?

First, business school career offices can supply more support. While it’s valuable for students to do the searches on their own, and to learn to deal with rejection as a professional reality, these experiences do not necessarily accelerate the learning curve. Professors and career coaches should help students evaluate their internship opportunities so they understand what they can gain from these professional experiences both academically and personally.

Because alternative education providers generally do not offer internships, these experiences are key differentiators of institutional programs.

Second, schools can require students to write mandatory reports in which they reflect on their experiences and connect theory to practice by describing how they applied concepts they learned in class to the work they did on the job. Schools could consider going a step farther and requiring students to discuss their reports with juries made up of academics and professionals.

Of course, business schools would have to invest time and money in revamping the internship experience in these ways. But a few sessions with coaches and an hourlong discussion with a jury would add a great deal of value to internships and help justify students’ financial and time investments in these programs.

Amping Up International Travel

Many business schools offer students opportunities to study abroad, and research shows that these experiences help learners cultivate substantial new skills and insights. However, schools cannot use these international exchanges to justify their high tuition if all they do is simply connect their students to partner institutions. Individuals pursuing credentials with alternative providers also can find ways to get international exposure, even if they just visit foreign countries on their own.

Meanwhile, as researchers have demonstrated, the mere act of traveling abroad is insufficient for allowing someone to achieve a truly immersive experience. This seems intuitive enough: Would we expect a student to have a successful experience in France without taking any courses on French language or culture? And yet, students are routinely heading off toward unfamiliar destinations knowing very little about the countries they’ll be visiting except what they can find in the latest Lonely Planet guides.

To help students extract more value from their time abroad—and to differentiate itself from competitors—a business school must deepen the international experiences it offers. It can start by setting up courses that cover specific countries and cultures and by introducing students to cross-cultural theories and concepts.

Then the administration can pair students with peers who are native to the host country or alumni who have taken up residence there. These contacts not only can provide students with insights into unfamiliar cultures, but also can enable students to build their networks. In addition, the ongoing connections strengthen the sense of community that business schools proudly forge and develop.

Facilitating Student Interactions

That sense of community is one of the most important benefits a school can offer its students, who recognize how valuable it is to make friends and create long-lasting relationships as they pursue their degrees. Such friendships typically are formed outside the classroom in more informal social settings.

For years, business schools have used the networking opportunities they offer as selling points for their programs. But now is the time to double down on this advantage. The fact that alternative educational providers primarily operate online drastically reduces opportunities for their students to develop new connections. Therefore, business schools can clearly distinguish themselves from their competitors by promoting in-person networking events and by organizing special events, field trips, and team sports.

Student societies are perfect training grounds for developing leadership competencies—and perfect examples of what separates a business school from an online provider.

In addition, business schools should invest more in student societies, which help participants cultivate skills such as teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, and time management. Business students who join such organizations are exposed to other disciplines, which enables them to develop valuable interdisciplinary thinking. They also have lower dropout rates and higher chances of securing employment after graduation.

While many business schools provide funding to student societies, and some offer students credit for participating, they could expand their support. For instance, administrators might encourage a professor with expertise in sustainability to mentor a student organization oriented toward environmental stewardship. Additionally, they could provide leadership training to the members of each society’s management team. After all, these societies are perfect training grounds for developing leadership competencies—and perfect examples of what separates a business school from an online provider.

Coordinating Holistic Experiences

While it’s important to invest resources in student internships, study abroad programs, and community-building opportunities, business schools can differentiate themselves even more by tying all these experiences together. In fact, business schools should consider coordinating the entire student journey through their career services departments, which are often considered pillars of the student experience.

Ideally, committed career counselors would help students choose useful elective courses, evaluate internship experiences, connect with alumni, and decide where and when to travel abroad. Of course, to create such integrated student services departments, institutions would need to do some serious restructuring. Offices would have to transform from being places that offer generic CV and interview training to being fully staffed hubs that synthesize and amplify a variety of student experiences.

The effort would be worth it, however, because such a holistic approach to education would generally be beyond the scope of most competitors. In short, business schools could effectively compete with certification providers by investing in the internal infrastructure to help students achieve personal growth and learn intangible skills.

Reshaping the Future

These are only a few examples of how business schools can accelerate their students’ growth and learning in ways that justify the expense and time commitment of pursuing a traditional degree. They are among the suggestions I outline in my survival manual called Business Schools Post-Covid-19.

The pandemic certainly changed higher education, but other forces are reshaping how and what students want to learn. If traditional business schools want to remain competitive, they will need to provide students with reasons to choose their programs over every other option. They will need to become hubs and boosters that provide students with integrated experiences that are available nowhere else.

Andreas Kaplan
President and Director General, Kühne Logistics University (KLU)
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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