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Cohort Programs: Cui Bono?

The EvoLLLution | Cohort Programs: Cui Bono?
While cohort programs make the management of certain offerings easier, they create a level of inflexibility that does not serve the best interests of students—especially non-traditional students.

The Latin phrase, cui bono, translates to, “for whose benefit?” Often applied as a forensic question in crime investigations when searching for a motive, the same question can also be put to academic administrators when investigating the motive to create cohort-based programs. The typical response is to suggest that the cohort design is chosen for the benefit of the students but is that really a design motivation or an ex post rationalization of an operational convenience?

When I refer to cohort-based program design, I mean a program where the students are organized in a fixed group throughout an entire, or at least the large majority, of an academic program. This group starts together, progresses through the program together, and graduates together. This sort of arrangement has long been part of adult education and is quite common, for example, in Executive MBA programs.

Every responsible academic administrator is sincerely committed to the best interests of the students. There are, however, other stakeholders in academic programs and, unavoidably, other interests that have to be addressed. While it would be ideal if every decision about a program’s design and operation would be optimal for every stakeholder, that simply is not possible.

So, circling back to the decision to design an academic program as cohort-based: Whose interests are really being prioritized with this model?

When institutions go to market with cohort-based programs, the marketing materials and sales dialogue often describes this design as a “better” way to learn and therefore, at least implicitly, superior to a non-cohort-based model. I am very familiar with the benefits suggested for cohort-based programs and I have extensive experience in making the case for these benefits with prospective students. I have been involved in roles such as program director, associate dean, dean, and instructor with cohort programs for adult students for more than 20 years, at four different academic institutions, in three countries. I have sung the praises of peer-to-peer learning and peer-based support countless times to people thinking about choosing a program of study.

Every time I have stood in front of a group of prospects at an information session and spoken about the wonderful aspects of cohort-based learning I have always kept my fingers crossed that no one in the audience wanted to really dig deeper on this topic. What could I say if asked why we don’t use the cohort model for all programs given all of its wonderful benefits? How could I explain why a cohort model is great for, say, an Executive MBA program but not for a full-time MBA program or a four-year undergraduate business degree? If organizing all of the students in a program into a group (or multiple groups) that go through the entire program together is optimal pedagogically, then are the students who enroll in programs that do not use the cohort model being short-changed or experiencing an inferior learning experience? At the end of the day, how could I answer the question whether cohort-based models were better than non-cohort models when my school offered both kinds of programs?

While I am confident that there are, truthfully, positive aspects of studying in a cohort-based program, my experience also shows me that these are coincidental outcomes of using cohort-based program models and not the primary motivation. If we are honest with ourselves as academic administrators, I think we would have to conclude that we create cohort-based programs when that suits the operational reality of running those programs. It is not a coincidence that most cohort-based programs have:

  1. Limited enrollment that typically has one intake of students equivalent in size to a single, or perhaps two, class sections;
  2. A short curriculum, like a graduate program, rather than a long series of courses where the likelihood of keeping a cohort together is small; and
  3. A set or fixed curriculum with very few options or electives for students to choose.

With these conditions met, we create cohort programs because they suit our operational and planning needs to schedule courses and assign faculty. In contrast, programs that have intakes of hundreds or thousands of students per year, have long pathways like an undergraduate degree, and include the opportunity for students to select a significant number of the courses they want to study are hardly ever cohort-based.

Further self-reflection on the decision to create cohort-based programs must also lead to the conclusion that the inflexibility of these models actually creates an enrollment hurdle for many adult student candidates. Cohort programs typically use rigid schedules and this creates a challenge for many adult learners who have to balance studies with responsibilities at home and at work. In my experience, many adult learner candidates hesitate when considering all of the implications of committing to a fixed schedule of classes over, say, an eighteen or twenty-four-month period.

The constraints imposed on students enrolled in cohort-based programs are even more obvious in today’s learning landscape with the growth of technology-facilitated programs that provide far more flexibility with access and timing. This provides an opportunity for academic institutions to offer parallel pathways to the same curricula but allow students to select the delivery model that best suits their preferred learning style and schedule demands. At Marist College, for example, we offer concentrations in our adult undergraduate degree completion program focused on Organizational Leadership and Organizational Communication. These two concentrations, plus the majority of the core requirements, are offered as a 24-month cohort-based program with class sessions on one weekday evening per week. At the same time, all of the courses in that program are also available in an online format. Given the identical content, students gravitate towards the delivery model that best suits their schedule and logistical needs. We do not suggest either pathway is better than the other: We position this as an opportunity to identify the format that makes the best sense for each student.

Ultimately, every benefit has a cost. With respect to cohort-programs for adult learners, I’d argue that the primary answer to the cui bono question is that the institution offering such programs benefits by having more predictability in their planning processes and it is the participants who bear the cost giving up schedule and curricular flexibility. Only with the recognition of this trade-off in place can secondary benefits for students in cohort models also be mentioned.

Perhaps these observations provide a path to a more balanced—and appropriate—way to discuss the cohort model with prospective students. There are certainly features of the cohort model that can appeal to adult learners and candidates should be made aware of these. They should also be made aware of the demands of a cohort model with regard to adhering to the fixed schedule requirements. Prospective students will weigh the costs and benefits of all of the programmatic choices they face. If a careful analysis of preferred learning style and the obligations that committing to a rigid schedule imposes lead some candidates to select a cohort-based program then that’s a great outcome. Unless an institution is prepared to say so, the candidates who choose not to enroll in a cohort program after the same careful analysis should not be made to feel they have compromised their learning experience and outcomes.

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