Business schools are their own worst enemies

A supply-side mentality will not secure the future of management education, says Yale SOM professor

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The future of management education is bright — provided top business schools broaden the scope of who they serve and how they serve them.

To be sure, there is plenty of alarming news. After a high in 2012, the number of GMAT-takers is down two years in a row. The picture is even worse in the US where test volume has declined by 31 per cent since 2010.

However, growing competition over a stagnant or even shrinking pool of applicants is largely a problem of business schools’ own making. With growing complexity across sectors and an acceleration of the speed of change, there has arguably never been greater demand for management skills.

The problem is that most business schools continue to approach the market with a supply-side mentality: “who can take the programmes we want to offer at the price we want to charge?” This focuses schools’ attention on a narrow segment of candidates in their mid-20s or mid-30s who can afford expensive MBA, Executive MBA or specialised masters programmes, as well as short custom or open enrolment programmes commonly paid for by employers.

If business schools instead approached the market with a demand-side lens — “who needs management education and how can we provide it to them?” – they could tap into vast new markets. Let me highlight just three currently underserved populations: pre-MBA students, non-business professionals, and senior leaders.

In many countries, graduates struggle to market their predominantly theoretical skills to companies that increasingly expect immediate impact from new hires. Tuck has served this market for more than a decade with its four-week summer Bridge Business Program, which offers a mini-MBA to more than 300 undergraduates, including leadership training and career support. With a different format and much lower price point, Harvard’s Credential of Readiness (CORe) offered via its online HBX platform serves the same market and launched in February with 500 participants.

Unlike pre-experience Master of Management programmes, such non-degree programmes do not cannibalise the MBA. In fact, they even help schools identify top talent early and thus create a pipeline into their flagship offerings. As Tuck’s and HBS’ experience shows, business schools can tap new markets if they jettison the idea that young profiles can only be served with degree programmes.

Aspiring leaders in non-business professional sectors constitute a second growth area. For instance, hospitals, schools and police departments are complex organisations operating in an environment characterised by scarce funds, media scrutiny and growing competition. Yet little if anything in the training of doctors, teachers and police officers prepares them for the management challenges they face.

Physicians make up a growing number of EMBA students at places like Duke, Wharton and Yale that have built specific programmes around their needs. However, teachers hoping to become principals or police officers wanting to become chiefs require substantial financial support to afford top programmes. If business schools commit funds, strike partnerships with public sector employers or develop more affordable non-degree options, including online offerings, they could broaden their applicant pools and make a contribution to critical sectors. To give a sense of the potential, there are 130,000 schools, 18,000 law enforcement agencies and almost 6,000 hospitals in the US alone.

Senior leaders represent perhaps the biggest opportunity for business schools. Despite paying lip service to life-long learning, most schools have little more than a few off-the-shelf open enrolment programmes with predefined curricula to offer to leaders in their 40s, 50s or 60s. While leaders in this category cherish an affiliation with a top business school, they usually do not care much for a degree and in any case cannot dedicate a full year or two. But flexible, self-designed curricula lasting between two and six months could bring such profiles back to campus.

Management has never been more important. If business schools become less relevant, it will be for lack of programmatic innovation, not lack of opportunity.

David Bach is Senior Associate Dean for Executive MBA and Global Programs at Yale School of Management.

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