Bigger Schools Have the Edge in the Graduate Education Marketplace
The following interview is with Jeffrey Camm, department head and professor of operations, business analytics and information systems at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business. As graduate education gains steam as one of the more lucrative markets within the higher education umbrella, schools of all sizes are entering into and competing in this space. In this interview, Camm discusses competition in the graduate education market and shares his thoughts on whether bigger or smaller schools have the edge.
1. What is the most significant competitive advantage big schools have over small and mid-sized schools when it comes to graduate programming?
The biggest advantage of a large Rank 1 research university, especially when it comes to graduate programs, is the depth and academic diversity of the faculty. For example, here at the University of Cincinnati, we have 14 colleges and maybe 5,000 faculty, so if I want to start a new graduate program, there are a lot of places I can draw expertise from to build that program. I don’t necessarily have to go outside of the university for expertise. A recent example is in my area, which is analytics. Just last year in the span of five months, we built a new certificate program in data analytics and it’s a cross program between my analytics group here and computer science. At a smaller university, the computer science department might not have the depth and breadth I would need to create a program in data science.
The other advantage would be the research focus that larger universities tend to have. Most of the research-focused universities across the United States, by virtue of being large, they’re Rank 1 research universities. They’re very good at bringing in funding and have faculty that are on the cutting edge of their research domain. It’s the depth and the breadth of faculty and the research focus, especially for graduate programs, that give the large institutions a competitive advantage.
2. On the flip side, what is the most significant challenge big schools face competing in this marketplace?
Being large can also be a hindrance. As I mentioned, we have 14 colleges at the University of Cincinnati. They grew up independently, there are silos, and sometimes it’s difficult because of the red tape. Whenever you have a large organization, there are process controls and there’s often a lot of red tape. In terms of creating a new program, each college has the financial incentive to do certain things. How do you align those incentives to get a new and innovative program up and running quickly? Overcoming silos and being able to develop a program in a timely way and react fast to the market, that’s tougher to do in a larger institution if you have to cut across the boundaries of colleges or departments.
3. Are there any bureaucratic advantages bigger schools have over smaller schools or lesser-known competitive advantages in that space?
From the funding side, larger institutions are typically so much better prepared to write proposals and draw in the funding for the research side, which has a direct impact on graduate programs. With that money comes discretionary funding into the research side of the university, and if the administration in the university chooses to allocate that funding to support a new graduate program, that’s a real competitive advantage.
4. Is academic content enough to differentiate institutions from one another in the graduate education space, or do schools need to offer something else?
Academic content can be a differentiator if you build your program around a certain subset of a broader market. For example, in analytics, there are some universities that have decided to focus specifically on marketing analytics or analytics and healthcare, so you can differentiate yourself on the academic program.
[But] a lot of academic programs are very similar in content so you have to find other ways to differentiate yourself. One way to do that is on cycle time [the time it takes to earn any given degree]. If you’re asking somebody to step out of the market and stop their employment to stay for your full-time master’s degree, or even if they’re coming straight from undergraduate school, the time they’re out of the market is funding that is lost, pay that is lost, so getting them back into the market quickly is an advantage.
Job placement and the resources dedicated to placement can be a differentiator. If you have a very strong placement record and well-funded and well-staffed placement operation, that can be a very strong differentiator for one program from another.
The last thing I’ll mention is [that] the strength and reputation of the faculty can be a real differentiator. Take a place like the University of Chicago that has many Nobel laureates; that’s a real strength, that’s a real differentiator. Students make choices based on those types of things that are not just the academic program.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about competition between larger schools and smaller schools in the graduate education market and how either side can get the edge over the other?
I’ve seen programs at smaller liberal arts schools, mostly private — they can get to market faster just because they’re more agile, in my experience. Their disadvantage is they typically have to search for the faculty. There are pluses and minuses to both; being smaller means less red tape, but being larger typically means you have more faculty resources, maybe even more funding, to launch a program, and probably a bigger alumni network.
This interview has been edited for length.