Competing in the Executive Education Marketplace
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most common characteristics of students who enroll in executive education programs?
Paul Almeida (PA): Executive education caters to people who are executives — people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s. Most of these students have bachelor’s degrees and many have master’s degrees, but they’ve reached a point in their careers where they know they need to acquire a further set of skills, insights and expertise or networks or even gain further legitimacy by associating themselves with a prominent university. Almost all of them have this common hunger to achieve something more, to learn something more, to build in a way they haven’t in their previous work life.
Evo: In your experience, what have been a few of the most significant challenges in serving these students?
PA: Universities have traditionally served 18 to 22-year-olds, people who haven’t had much experience in their work life. Executive education caters to people who are very different, people who have experience, who have travelled the world, who have been exposed to a larger number of business and other situations. Therefore, the challenge is to adapt our systems, our culture and our approaches so we can best serve their needs.
Almost every executive has less flexibility than an 18-year-old. They have family lives, work lives and, on top of that, a learning life. Therefore, every executive education program has to be flexible in format, the number of approaches to learning [and] the way we evaluate them. Most universities, especially the well-established universities who have been around a few hundred years, have to adjust to this expectation.
The second major difference is a high level of service. Many of our executive students have toured the world, have lived in five-star hotels everywhere, are used to a high level of service, and support and universities have to be able to deliver this. They’re still students but they’re executive students. We have to deliver a very high level of service to all our students regardless of their background because that’s the new norm.
Finally, executives learn in very different ways. The tendency is to adapt undergraduate or master’s education to executives and hope it works, but when you’re 30, 40, 50, you learn in many different ways. You learn by osmosis, you learn by interaction, you learn by exposure, you learn by questioning the conventional wisdom. Professors, therefore, have to adapt their approach to teaching, their approach to the learning journey.
Evo: How competitive is the executive education marketplace?
PA: Executive education is perhaps the fastest growing area in higher ed. We’re realizing that along with the forces of technology and the forces of globalization, the fact that people are willing to come back to school and are eager to come back to school in their 30s, 40s, 50s, provides a whole spectrum of possibility. Universities, especially with the rising cost of education, have figured this out and almost every university worth its name is competing increasingly aggressively in this field. If you go back 20 years, very few universities or schools would have an executive MBA program; now, almost without exception, every single major university has one, two or even three executive MBA programs. The level of competition is pretty incredible. It’s an extremely competitive market.
It’s also less defined; the parameters on which we’re competing is less clear and, therefore, there’s a certain amount of experimentation, there’s a certain amount of search process that’s going to take place. It’s very difficult to identify exactly what the basis of competition is. It’s not as pure as for MBAs, where GPAs and GMATs define success. What it takes to compete is unclear and therefore one has to be very alert, one has to have an emergent strategy, one has to explore and take in the lessons you learn and adjust fairly quickly.
Evo: Why is student-centeredness critical to succeeding in the executive education marketplace?
PA: You have to remember they’re executives; they’re going to be demanding, their needs are going to be more complex than the needs of 18-year-olds, and yet they’re students, so this means we have to be very demanding of them in terms of their performance, their preparation, their attendance, their papers and exams.
That’s sometimes a tricky balance. They have to prove they’ve learned and they deserve the accreditation they’re going to receive. It’s an interesting challenge.
Evo: What are a few other factors that can help an institution differentiate itself in this space?
PA: The real danger is the classic race to the bottom: cutting prices, giving big discounts to attract the top students — and that’s already going on even among some prominent institutions.
Each institution [should] play to their strengths, and their differentiating strengths are going to be different. For instance, Georgetown is based in the nation’s capital, so we must play off the advantage of Washington, D.C., as being a world capital. We must play off our advantages in international business and policy and government relationships and multilateral institutions; we must play off our networks around the globe. If we, on the other hand, tried to produce a generic product or tried to emphasize that we’re the best at everything, or tried to compete on the basis of price, we’re doomed for failure.
PA: Is there anything you’d like to add about student-centeredness and today’s executive education marketplace?
PA: This is one of the most exciting areas in higher ed. The possibilities are numerous and what we view today as executive education is the tip of the iceberg. People who finish their undergraduate education at 22, they may retire at 75 or 80, and the world is moving at an incredibly fast pace. All of us are going to require new learning. We want to be renewed, we want to be able to change and we want to be able to make new decisions. The world is going to open up. The number of executive education courses, the types of these courses, degree and non-degree — it’s just going to increase very dramatically. Universities need to recognize this challenge, recognize this wonderful opportunity and make adjustments to their structures and their approaches to be able to truly harness this possibility.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator