The Big Picture: Drivers of Change & the Road Ahead for Business Schools

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Earlier this month, our team had the opportunity to sit down and talk trends in business education with Dr. Norean Sharpe, Dean and Joseph H. and Maria C. Schwartz Distinguished Chair at The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in New York. With more than 25 years of experience as a scholar and administrator at Yale University, Bowdoin College, Babson College, and Georgetown, Dean Sharpe has a unique view on the changes that have taken place in business education in the last few years and what’s around the corner.

We started the conversation with a look at what’s driving change in higher education today and ended with the impact that these changes are having on business schools today. A summary of our Q&A is below.

How are students today different than 3-5 years ago?

Today’s graduate students are considering location, prestige, discipline of study, and cost when selecting a program. In the last three years, cost has risen to the top of the priority list for students. One result of this trend is that students are selecting programs that are closer to home to contain expenses, even if they are online.

Five years ago, we thought that the explosion of online offerings would entirely disrupt college selection. But what we’ve actually seen is that students want the pedagogy provided by hybrid and blended models. Students want to use the facilities of a campus—such as the career center and computer labs—but also have the flexibility to schedule classes around their lives with options for both in-person and online offerings.

Also related to cost, we’re seeing students evaluating time to completion as an important criterion. Students want to enter the workforce as quickly as possible.

How are these trends in student preferences driving changes in policy?

This student behavior is leading to some major changes in both the higher education system and policy. In New York, the Excelsior Scholarship will provide free four-year degrees for children of families making less than $125,000 per year, which has generated demand for New York’s public universities. This increase in public school applications is straining resources at private institutions, since they are now raising discount rates to compete for students more aggressively. Given the high cost of education, advocating for free four-year college programs will become a more popular political platform over the next two years – already approximately a dozen states provide some form of free tuition for low-income families.

How will these new policies impact the institutions?

I believe this will also lead to increased merger and acquisition (M&A) in higher education. That is, the merging of two institutions and/or public-private partnerships. I’ll be interested to see if these institutions maintain separate brands or combine into one. I also believe we’ll see more partnerships between four-year and two-year institutions, providing direct pathways and scholarship incentives. This will offset capacity issues at four-year institutions while helping two-year institutions provide a pipeline for their students to four-year degrees.

In business schools, these changes are impacting the programs we offer and the delivery method. For example, full-time MBAs are shrinking, part-time MBAs are growing, and discipline-specific MS degrees are among the fastest growing programs. There has been a movement away from the two-year M.B.A. as the flagship program. Students want to focus on tracks that lead to a specific career path. We’re seeing an uptick in students focused on accounting, risk management, data science, analytics, finance, and actuarial science. As you might notice scanning through this list, these are all quantitative areas of study. Both students and employers are demanding more quantitative skills, and this is how business schools can respond.

In addition, MBA Programs are changing their admission requirements and becoming test optional; every semester I’m seeing more schools waiving their GMAT requirements or also accepting the GRE.

I’m also seeing more “Fast Track” programs, which is something that we offer at St. John’s University. Fast Track programs, also known as 4+1, or five year, programs, add one year of graduate school to an undergraduate four-year degree resulting in a student earning both an undergraduate and graduate degree in five years – thereby saving time and money. This option has been popular with students because it positions them well for the workforce and  enter certain industries with an advantage (e.g. accounting with a CPA). Our Fast Track students have nearly tripled in three years.

How have you led your institution through these changes?

Tobin has continued to stay relevant by innovating our program offerings, balancing cost with value, adhering to our core Catholic mission, and creating corporate-institutional partnerships. Small, private schools are the ones being disproportionately impacted by these changes, which is another reason why I believe we will see more M&A in higher education over the next 10+ years.

I’m committed to keeping our programs and formats up to date, and I’m supported by a group of strong faculty members who are entrepreneurial in their efforts to help bring this vision to life. I’m also committed to hiring professors of practice at Tobin—ones who bring real-world expertise to the table.

What other changes do you expect to see in the next 10+ years?

I think we’ll see increased pressure to lower the cost of tuition, shorten the time to completion, and invest in technology and digital learning.

We may also see a shift in the way executive education is offered. Instead of individual employees seeking advanced degrees, I believe we’ll see an increase in employers seeking out custom programs for their employees, offered at scale. This could take the format of corporate-university partnerships, or even some large corporations employing faculty members. Since business schools view themselves as being hugely responsible for educating future business leaders, we must be on the forefront of these trends to meet the changing demand – both from a student perspective and employer perspective.