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Changing focus: Ever-changing market is making higher education create alternatives to the traditional MBA program

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Greg Cant is the dean
of the Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University.
Greg Cant is the dean of the Feliciano School of Business at Montclair State University. - ()

For obvious reasons, there's no school boasting about the way an MBA program could encroach on your time and energy.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that the appetite is shrinking among busy executives worried about the serious commitment these programs often appear to be.

But that’s quickly changing things for the country’s colleges, which Greg Cant of Montclair State University said are scaling back their MBA programs. Eating into the interest in these heftier programs is bite-sized continuing education offerings for business professionals.

“Education has truly been disrupted, like an industry such as health care has been,” said Cant, dean of Montclair’s Feliciano School of Business. “There’s now a lot of players in continuing education, including some really big ones — like NYU and Columbia — doing everything from a one-day event to a one-night-a-week online course.”

Montclair State does some of it and, like many schools, Cant says it is looking to do more.

Not for profit, but certainly for education
For as much as industries differ in the business world, the nonprofit sector can be just as diverse.
Deborah Fredericks, associate dean of continuing education and learning outcomes assessment at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said her institution has created a certificate specially designed for executives in nonprofit positions to get them some exposure to its different sides.
The nonprofit executives are generally using it as an opportunity to round off their existing knowledge base, Fredericks said. “There’s always more to learn, and this is what this program helps with,” she said.
The certificate involves one course and some field work, such as visiting an organization like the Make a Wish Foundation and seeing how the operation is run.
“That’s important, because the nonprofit sector,  something like health care or human services, involves some very distinct areas,” Fredericks said.

But Cant will be the first to admit Montclair State is never going to be a major player in this business marketplace. It’s hard to match the hundreds of options available from some of the big players in the world of fast-paced, on-demand education.

“In the supermarket, you expect every shelf to be full of everything you want — that’s the way suites of classes have really become,” he said. “So, one can go select courses on capital markets, social media, through to really advanced business courses that come with a serious price tag.

“There are also some offering it for free. And we definitely can’t compete with no-cost education.”

Top universities as well as non-university entities, such as nonprofit educational organization Khan Academy, are ushering in a paradigm of open education for business executives.

“It means someone like Bill Gates can watch free Khan Academy lectures on any subject he wants to learn about while he works out,” he said. “So a question for us is a strategy question for a business school — do you want to go head-to-head with that? And, typically, you don’t.”

Yet Cant believes New Jersey’s learning institutions can still appeal in many ways to the executive cautious about making a plunge into an MBA program.

“It involves sticking to what we have expertise in, particularly niche areas, and focusing on that instead of trying to do it all,” he said. “We can do that, slicing our areas of expertise into smaller packages, and offering it in the marketplace — but we have to retain quality and a personalized touch. If we do both well, we can compete with nearly anyone.”

The area of focus at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which is also currently making a push to expand its online offerings, is on emerging fields.

Sotirios Ziavras, associate provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate faculty at NJIT, said his institution has responded to changing demand by building up a catalog of 30 certificate programs to accompany its longer-form degrees.

“We are quite innovative,” he said. “Our certificate programs are focused on many new fields, such as big data, intelligence transportation systems, financial mathematics, biomedical device development and information security.”

While one-off courses and certificates in specialized areas are gaining popularity, Brian Rothschild, the director of gradaute management programs at Stevens Institue of Technology, said more general programs geared toward executives will always come out on top in certain regards.

“These executive education programs have remained a good seller for us because of their potential for students to network,” Rothschild said. “In short-term educational opportunities, you also sometimes end up with less fruitful interaction and perhaps less students with working experience. … Often, executives who have been working 10-plus years want to be in classes with others that have same experience level.”

For those unsure about the commitment of a full-blown MBA program, Stevens also has certificate programs that require just several courses. Those certificates and the corresponding courses can be transferred to credits in the school’s MBA program.

Educating the next executives
Knowing how to glad-hand like a pro in a claustrophobic room staged for a networking event without getting docked a few grace points for business card fumbles ...
However unexceptional such skills may seem, would-be executives have to learn them.
“We want to have students graduate and know how to act in a big room setting or how to run a regular business meeting,” said Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a Rutgers marketing professor. “These are critical skills that are not typically taught in a classroom setting.”
Kaufman-Scarborough is director of Business Leader Development Program, which was developed to provide professional coaching to prospective business leaders and top students at Rutgers. The program also drops students into opportunities to shadow executives as they go about ordinary activities such as attending a trade show.
“It’s really a rewarding experience because you see them grow,” she said. “They get to learn critical skills that are not typically taught in a classroom setting.

“Along the way, you’re offered some certifications, (because it can) always be hard to explain that you’re almost finished with something when you want to convince someone you’re valuable now,” Rothschild said. “Business professionals, particularly in the younger generation, millennials, seem to more often want to get credentials along the way.”

And the school’s MBA program itself is receptive to the needs of a working executive. It’s a longer program, but one in which classes are held every other week.

“I’ve worked at other schools that had executive education programs that were every weekend, and those programs may have taken a shorter amount of time, but the fact is the people in these programs probably have family at home and are giving up every weekend,” Rothschild said. “You have to be very willing to provide a work-life balance for people. That’s really what’s driving executive education today.”

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @reporterbrett

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Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson covers a wide array of sectors as a general assignment reporter. Before joining NJBIZ in 2014, he lived on the West Coast and wrote for a newspaper in Davis, Calif. You can contact him at brettj@njbiz.com or @ReporterBrett on Twitter.

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