Many business schools are offering healthy discounts for alumni to come back to school and take an executive education course — challenging the traditional higher education model of front-loading learning at the start of a career.
In the volatile world we live in, one degree cannot last a lifetime. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that as many as 375 million workers would have to switch occupations or acquire new skills by 2030 because of artificial intelligence.
Wharton MBA and EMBA graduates from the Class of 2010 and subsequent years are eligible to attend one open-enrolment program at no charge every seven years. This lifelong benefit allows alumni to choose from more than 30 programs in leadership, finance, marketing, strategy and innovation. Graduates who are not eligible can receive a 25 percent discount on open-enrolment programs at any time.
Eleena de Lisser, director of marketing communications at Wharton Executive Education, says alumni have numerous reasons for entering education again: “For many, it is an opportunity to refresh their business knowledge, acquire new business acumen and expand their professional networks.”
For others, it’s about reminding oneself what it’s Like to be a student again. “Getting back into the learning mindset is so critical for success in the new world of work,” says Anne Trumbore, executive director of digital technology for executive education at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
“For learners, lifelong learning can put them in the driver’s seat of their own career path,” she says. “For the first time in history, learners can take advantage of a bottom-up curriculum through stackable credentials instead of being subject to top-down university degrees.”
More business graduates are pursuing executive education
The Darden school offers a range of courses to alumni with a varied discount structure. “Alumni add tremendous depth and richness to our programs, and we love having them in our courses,” Trumbore says.
She has seen increasing numbers of graduates enrolling in such courses over the past year. The most popular programs among alumni have been online classes in data analytics and courses on women in leadership.
Over at Insead in France and Singapore, alumni enjoy a 30 percent discount on all open-enrolment executive education programs and a 40 percent discount for most online courses too. In addition, the business school develops specific lifelong learning programs targeted at alumni only, including webinars and online conferences.
“Alumni are very keen to join — especially short and free webinars, which are popular as alumni can access them wherever they are based, even if time is scarce,” says Anne-Ev Enzmann, director of lifelong learning at Insead. “In addition, the webinars are interactive. Alumni feel connected to the community of like-minded peers,” she adds.
For Insead, the focus areas are business and society; digital technology and innovation; leadership; entrepreneurship; and career development. “Those alumni who are preparing for a career transition spend significantly more time on executive education and will join longer programs,” says Enzmann, an alumna of Insead herself.
“Most important may be the opportunity to meet and connect with peers who are either in a similar situation for emotional support, or can help advise with their expertise,” she says.
Executive education for free?
At NYU Stern School of Business in New York, alumni are eligible to take two free executive education courses each academic year and they receive a 50 percent discount on additional courses. Alumni also receive a 50 percent discount on all online executive education courses.
Stern graduates are also eligible to audit graduate-level elective courses at no cost, once per semester. “The alumni response has been very positive since we launched this initiative in fall 2019: more than 600 Stern alumni have requested these educational benefits to date,” says Amanda Parker, associate dean for development and alumni relations at Stern.
Topics range from developing leadership skills to advanced valuation to corporate sustainability. “The programs are designed for executives to retool, advance and expand their skills and knowledge in sync with innovations and changes in the global business landscape,” says Parker.
“Additionally, these focused, intensive courses minimize time away from the office while developing targeted skills and delivering strategies that can be implemented immediately at work.”
Who should pay for lifelong learning?
The question now is who should pay for lifelong learning, which is becoming increasingly crucial in an era of upheaval.
Darden’s Trumbore believes that the cost should be covered at least in part by companies who benefit from motivated, engaged, productive employees. But governments should also provide support to bring the most value to society, she says.
Singapore has emerged as a leader in this field: the state offers direct subsidies of S$500 to all citizens over the age of 25 to take a pre-approved list of 18,000 courses. Other governments such as in the UK, Denmark and Canada are trying to get companies to invest in training for their workers and give them time off to study. Politicians will be well aware of the untapped potential of an aging workforce and warnings over growing skills gaps and widening inequalities.
Yet, Insead’s Enzmann believes it’s the individual’s responsibility to invest in their lifelong learning and career development. “However, to translate conviction and good intentions into action, many of us need some nudging, incentive or support to make it easy to get started.”
Insead therefore offers as many courses as possible for free or low cost, to ensure price is not a barrier to entry, she says. “Our faculty and alumni usually give their time for short speaking engagements for free. Longer and deeper programs — we sell those at cost.”
Lifelong learning also raises awkward questions for business schools over the long-term value of a traditional degree such as an MBA. Is there a risk that knowledge gained will become stale, or even that lifelong learning could cannibalize demand for MBAs?
Schools insist that alumni attribute their professional successes to their business degrees, which provided them with the knowledge and networks that have been especially critical during this extraordinary period of rapid change. That said, the business education model must evolve to remain relevant and alumni pathways back to executive education courses are an early iteration of a new future for business education.