Why MBA Alumni Are Opting into Online Lifelong Learning Programs | TopMBA.com

Why MBA Alumni Are Opting into Online Lifelong Learning Programs

By Seb Murray

Updated January 17, 2022 Updated January 17, 2022

MBA education is, typically, fleeting. Although participants form strong bonds that are beneficial long after graduation, they spend no more than two years on campus. And with graduates keen to get back into the workforce more quickly, courses are getting shorter (and cheaper).  

Now the traditional model of MBA education is being challenged by economic and technological forces. With managers under pressure to develop new skillsets as a result of rapid advances in technology, and millennials switching careers, industries and geographies more frequently, there is a growing need for them to reskill (often several times) throughout a career.

This phenomenon has caught the attention of business schools, which are striving to provide an education that lasts a lifetime, with executive education courses offered at steep discounts for alumni. Many schools see distance learning as the big opportunity to deliver lifelong learning, as alumni can tune into classes from a distance, without taking time off work. 

Anne Trumbore, senior director of Wharton Online, says: “It’s difficult to see how two years of learning will provide all that’s needed to remain current through a 40-year career.”

The leading business school based in Pennsylvania grants MBA alums access to all its public online courses – including popular finance, digital marketing and quantitative modelling classes – and a few exclusive ones. Discounts for its 96,000 global alumni range from 20 to 100 percent, depending on course.

“Realistically, online learning is the only learning delivery method that will be available for most people to refresh their skills throughout their lifetime,” Trumbore says.

“It’s simply not feasible for people to pause and return to campus to learn what they need to remain current. Not only is the cost (in time and money) prohibitive, but the university may not have the courses employees need.”

Wharton is far from alone in offering online content to MBA alumni at reasonable rates. Alumni of IMD in Switzerland are treated to a discount of around 10 percent for all executive education courses, and the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands offers graduates of other courses a 10 percent discount on its MBA programs. More schools are expected to follow suit.

A changing labor market

The development has been driven by changes to the global labor market. An analysis by professional networking platform LinkedIn found that, on average, people change jobs four times before they are 32. They don’t just change jobs, but often switch into completely different fields.

Many older executives are also being forced to retrain as new ways of work evolve and people work later into their lives. The McKinsey Global Institute forecast that as many as one-third of US and German workers could need to switch jobs by 2030 due to rapid automation.

Sean Meehan, dean of the IMD MBA program, believes this challenge requires a change of mindset rather than the acquisition of technology skills.

“Five years ago, most executives were not familiar with the potential of existing technologies to transform their opportunity landscape, the threats posed (especially from much smaller, more agile new entrants); they knew little about AI, deep learning or robotics. This has changed forever,” he says.  

“Execs realize they must align management and leadership with Industry 4.0. They must not only be up to the minute on the capability of these technologies to disrupt; they must realize technologies are in a state of rapid change also.”

About 10 percent of IMD’s MBA cohort come back for continuing education, a figure that is expected to grow. There are 12 online offerings that include courses on digital innovation, business sustainability and business analytics. Prices range from US$1,800 to US$2,800. In addition, IMD runs special alumni events on emerging issues held in cities around the world, offering graduates the chance to informally imbibe knowledge.

Meehan says alumni do not take lifelong learning courses because they have been made redundant; they see it as vital to their long-term career success.

“The old advice to ask yourself what you’ve added to your resume in any year, is perhaps more relevant than ever,” he says. “Great executives keep adding skills and capabilities, they seek out learning experiences at work and through executive education.”

He adds that alums cannot wait; they need to begin refreshing their skills immediately and continuously: “Always be ready, know your market value and pursue the best option for you.”

Plenty of options

Moocs (Massive open online courses), often free, are another option for MBAs who want to upskill without quitting their jobs. The Rotterdam school offers a variety of Moocs in subjects such as innovation, sustainable business development and more. The rising demand for lifelong learning has even led some organizations to establish their own online learning programs – AT&T, for instance, has partnered with digital education platform Udacity to develop ‘nanodegrees’ for its management staff.

“Employers uncover the need for new skills much faster than universities can respond with curriculum [changes],” says Wharton’s Trumbore. “However, universities are creating knowledge rapidly, and they can now disseminate that knowledge faster than ever using technology.”

She says that “employees will need to be proactive in seeking out the learning they need to remain employable…but much work still needs to be done by employers, universities and employees to prepare for the future”.

For Brandon Kirby, director of MBA marketing and admissions at Rotterdam, the cost burden of lifelong learning should be shared between employers, schools and students.

“If the content is relevant to the business and they will benefit, the company could be expected to contribute in some way,” he says. “This could be in the form of financial support or in the necessary time away from work that might be required.”

However, if the training falls outside of this, “the argument could be made that the employee should be expected to pay for the training themselves”.

More MBA alumni may be willing to foot the bill in future, given the huge upside to lifelong learning. If they don’t, the risks are high.

“I don’t think it was ever the case that a master’s degree including an MBA can be expected to last a lifetime,” says Kirby, adding: “With the business landscape changing so quickly, it is vital for successful leaders to be continually learning. It’s no different than an athlete who must continually train to maintain elite-level status.”

This article was originally published in June 2018 . It was last updated in January 2022

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