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Corporate Training Programs Offer Institutions the Chance to Fill Empty Seats

By providing customized training to the corporate market, higher education institutions get the chance to fill seats that have been left empty since the recession.

The Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago offers an unusual range of programs, ranging from interested-based programs to advanced programs for high school students to intensive professional training across a range of disciplines. Marketing this broad array of programs is costly and challenging. Our audiences for our humanities seminars are different from our audiences for our professional certificates; we can’t rely on a single message, nor can we expect to reach everyone we’d like by advertising on a few media platforms. Yet, there are a few reliable audiences, or at least it is comforting to believe so.

One pipeline we have always relied on to fill seats in our professional certificates is the flow of employees using their company’s tuition benefit plan to acquire training and enhance their skills. Since the recession of 2008, many companies have restructured their tuition benefit and tuition reimbursement plans. For the Graham School, and many other continuing education providers, this has resulted in fewer enrollments.

Why would employers pay for an employee’s education? Studies have shown several benefits that companies can expect. Peter Cappelli, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, has published research that shows that tuition benefit plans attract better employees, with greater skills, who stay longer, which are all important considerations when talent is a key input into any business operation.[1] Colleen N. Flaherty found something similar, linking tuition reimbursement programs with lower turnover, helping reduce the costly work of recruiting new staff and orienting and training them.[2]

The recession refocused companies on the bottom-line in a more straightforward way, and a broad review of policies across the corporate landscape revealed a dramatic rollback in tuition benefits. Many companies have capped tuition benefits at $2,500 per year, too little for an employee to pursue an MBA, and, focusing more narrowly on the Graham School, only enough to pay for half the cost of one of our Certificates. We still get enrollments from students using their tuition benefit, but fewer of them, and, on average, these students take longer to complete their Certificates, because they reach into their own pocket to pay the remaining tuition, or they delay completing the Certificate until the following year, when they can draw on the next year’s tuition benefit.

One tactic to work around this problem is to increase our capabilities to deliver programs directly to corporate clients. Many firms are still investing in employee training and development, but they have taken the latitude to map out a professional development plan away from their employees. The company is organizing the seminars, mapping out learning objectives, and bringing in providers to deliver training under the focused supervision of the firm’s human resources or organizational development office. The Graham School has been developing these capabilities, but it is no quick fix. It is crucial to network – we have been working with the University’s office of Corporate Affairs to reach out to prospective corporate clients. We have built a landing page on our web-site, and will continue to refine it. We have done some data-mining in our enrollment system to find firms that have sent meaningful numbers of students into our programs in the past, as a first step toward some targeted outreach. This all takes time and a commitment of resources. But the hope is that, in the end, we can reconnect with an audience with which we are at risk of losing contact.

This new approach also requires a new way of doing business. For our normal public-catalog courses, we take months to think through our curriculum for the new academic year, reviewing student comments about our courses, inviting instructors to return, recruiting new ones, updating courses, reviewing and revising syllabi, taking apart a sequence of courses, putting it together in new ways, then assembling marketing materials and media plans. When a corporate client calls us to assemble a seminar for its employees, we need to respond in days, an accelerated pace more familiar to consultants and our for-profit competitors.

Yet the prospect is so attractive, that we take on these challenges, and accept the additional costs of promoting our offerings to this segment of the marketplace. Not only do we have the chance to fill seats the recession has left empty, but as an organization, we welcome the chance to learn new tricks, even after more than a hundred years offering continuing education.

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[1] Capelli, P. Why Do Employers Pay for College? September 2002.

[2] Flaherty, C. The Effect of Tuition Reimbursement on Turnover: A Case Study Analysis. March 2007.

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