Keys to Competing and Expanding Online (Part 2)Alex Sevilla | Associate Dean and Director of the Heavener School of Business, University of Florida
Increasing numbers of education providers—both accredited and unaccredited—are entering into the online space. This is especially true in the business education market, which is already well developed and crowded. Standing out is an immense challenge for all institutions in this space, and that includes institutions with strong brands. In the first installment of this two-part interview, Alex Sevilla discussed the ins and outs of competing in the online space. In this conclusion, he shares his thoughts on the value and limitations of innovative and diverse programming.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How can innovative credentials—like specialized master’s, dual degrees and online MBA options—help business schools stand out?
Alex Sevilla (AS): There are lots of things that make offering a broader portfolio of programming attractive for a school. For one thing, that diversity allows you to tap into the market at different points in people’s career and life cycles.
A specialized masters program, in many cases, is a pre-career degree where people can enroll straight from their undergraduate program without any work experience. This is what the MBA was 25 to 30 years ago.
Dual degrees allow business schools to share space with different parts of the university and allow for a greater richness of content, where you’re partnering with law, medicine or engineering.
Executive degrees and professional degrees allow you to target older, working professionals who are uninterested in doing a daytime, residential program.
Online is exciting because it’s everything all at once. It breaks down the geographic boundaries, creates access to all programs for students who may have wide swathes of work experience or maybe none at all. Online programming allows someone who is 24 and starting their career to share the same space as someone who is 54 and experienced.
Innovative credentialing is a way to manage a portfolio in a mature market. Schools that have successfully done this have found that as long as you have the right market-relevant program in place, you can diversify your offerings across the board. This allows you to increase your enrollment, which allows you to increase the revenue you generate as a business school, which hopefully leads to strengthening the program and the staff and faculty resources that are provided
The other benefit can be seen in the rankings. As more and more external publications rank different types of programs, the more programs you can offer the better your school is represented externally. It used to just be daytime MBA programs that were ranked, but then executive education programs began to get ranked, then online MBAs and specialized master’s programs. So having a family of brands, as it were, underneath your umbrella can really draw strength in the reputation of the school overall. High rankings in certain areas allow us to showcase our strength across the entire portfolio of offerings.
The business schools that are doing a good job of differentiating themselves are meeting the market in unique spaces both in terms of content and in terms of timing of when someone completes a degree. They are helping generate enrollment and revenue that strengthens the college, given all the other resources that are subsidized by these types of programs. Finally, they create reputational gain for schools that play in the top tier of this environment; they can promise high-quality and programmatic strength across their entire suite of programs.
Of course, you have to do this the right way. If you build too many programs and you don’t have the faculty to pull it off or you don’t have the reputation to be able to gain market share in a particular space then you’re actually hurting yourself. You may have excess capacity across many of these innovative programs, which makes them inefficient to run. Simply, if you’re not generating the enrollment then you’re not generating the necessary resources that go back into faculty hiring, research grants or service improvement. Leaders have got to be careful as they build our their portfolios that they can do it in a way where they are launching high-quality programs that people want and are going to be well respected, highly-ranked and that can generate enrollment. This will lead to success down the road.
Evo: What are the roadblocks leaders can expect to face when trying to get more diverse programs off the ground?
AS: One of the major roadblocks is knowing who you are. Higher education and business education can be just like in any other industry where there is a lot of “following the leader.” For example, a peer university could launch a program that makes you say, “Wow that’s interesting! They’ve just generated one hundred new graduate students in this space and that’s a nice part of their revenue portfolio. We want one of those too!”
However, if you don’t have the faculty base to pull that off or if you don’t have the geographic market—whether that’s regional or national—to pull to your school based upon the price point and the reputation, then you may be starting a program that simply never reaches relevance. That’s a very expensive proposition. Knowing who you are, knowing your strengths and knowing whether you are leading in that space is critical when considering a new program.
The second challenge that comes to mind is you’ve got to make sure that there’s a justification for every single one of these programs and that those lines of demarcation are well defined. You can get potentially too cute with creating a lot of different ways of doing the same thing, but this has a point of diminishing returns. You have to ask questions like, “Why does this specialized masters program exist?
Is it independent enough from the MBA program for both to have oxygen and to thrive?”
If you can’t adequately differentiate your programs from one another in a way that’s compelling, then prospective students will go to the school that has the options that have been very well defined. Knowing how to build the portfolio and how to do it right is crucial.
Another roadblock is resource availability. Many business schools struggle with balancing research activity with degree program activity, executive education offerings and other programs. Do you have the bandwidth with your core faculty to be able to deliver such an array of programs? Because if the answer is no and a school starts to outsource their faculty—or more generally tries to deliver the program in a different way while leveraging the strength of the brand—leaders can get into challenging waters. People will notice if one program has all-star faculty—the people responsible for the institution’s reputation—while their program does not. Sometimes even if the folks that you put in front of the students are really good it doesn’t matter because the perception is that you’re giving students in the new program the B team and that’s hard to overcome. Making sure that you have the faculty support and volume without pulling away from research is essential.
For online programs specifically, it’s a lot more complicated in the online space to make sure all of the moving parts of the organization work than it is in the traditional space. In the online space there’s a number of considerations leaders need to keep in mind. What technology platform are you using? How are you disseminating information? Is it synchronous? Is it asynchronous? What is the level of interaction between the students and the faculty? What’s the level of interaction between the students and each other? What type of community are you building there? Does it feel like a rigorous program?
There’s a great deal of complexity online. At a minimum, leaders need to think through whether there’s an in-house team to build courses and a technology platform, or whether it needs to be outsourced to a vendor. Then you have to think through who should be picking the vendor and who the vendor should be. For schools that just want to jump into the online space really quickly I always advise caution because if you do it wrong it can be disastrous. The bar of expectation is much higher in the online space because of some of the uncertainties as to how it will work out. There’s more uncertainty and lack of clarity for some students in the online space, so when it doesn’t work it can really diminish the student experience in a way that hurts the institutional brand, and ultimately it will hurt enrollment given the importance of word of mouth to reputation building.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about differentiating through innovative and diverse program options in the online business education space?
AS: The best business schools in the online space need to continue to push each other, to keep these experiences robust and three dimensional.
There’s lots of different ways that you can define flexibility, but it should not be done in such a way that reduces the rigor, intensity and immersive nature of an MBA experience.
The best way to do this is by creating an engaged community of learners that capitalize on technology to improve engagement with and among students, rather than simply using technology to try to create as flexible an experience as possible. Students should be saying, “I want to be a student at the University of Florida and I happen to be enrolled in an online program.” Not, “I’m an online MBA student who happens to be enrolled at the University of Florida” That’s a really important distinction and it comes down to the way we craft the experience. It’s really important for the schools that represent the top tier of graduate management education to push ourselves to find interesting ways to maximize that engagement.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.