Free Exec Ed Could Cost Wharton $1 Million A Year

Offering free life-long education to its MBA graduates could cost The Wharton School up to $1 million a year, according to its vice dean of executive education. Jason Wingard told Poets&Quants that the school expects 20% of each graduating class of MBAs to take them up on the free offer.

Wharton became the first major business school to promise its MBA graduates tuition-free, on-going executive education once every seven years over the course of their careers. The offer came as part of a move to a new MBA curriculum approved by the faculty on Friday (Dec. 3). The chairman of the faculty review committee that came up with the changes said the group considered as many as a dozen program designs and closely looked at new curriculum innovation at more than nine other business schools, including Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia and Chicago.

With such reviews increasingly more commonplace, however, it was the offer of free ongoing education that raised many eyebrows. With a one-week executive course at Wharton priced at $7,000 per person, not including room and board, the total “value” Wharton believes it is offering alums would come to $1 million annually. It remains to be seen how much of that $1 million in value will result in actual costs to the school.

Wharton, for example, says it will likely fill some empty seats in its 30 open-enrollment courses with its returning MBAs. The school also expects that some alums will take dedicated short courses based on demand. “The marginal costs for Wharton may not be substantial since many of the courses will already be offered as part of our open enrollment executive education program,” says Wingard.

The schools will likely offer a menu of options to MBA alums, including multi-day seminars. “Today we have in mind specialized open enrollment courses which run for one week or less.” Adds Wingard. “Increasingly some proportion of these courses will likely be delivered in a blended learning format.”

After what it said was a multi-year study that included the surveying of some 2,000 alumni, students, recruiters and faculty, the school announced Monday a new MBA curriculum emphasizing flexibility for students, academic rigor, and continuous innovation of content development. Among other things, the new curriculum will offer students greater customization of their MBA education based on their earlier education and work experience.

The idea to throw in free executive education did not come from its surveys of stakeholders, says Richard Shell, a negotiations professor and chair of the seven-member MBA Review Committee, but rather from conversations with alumni leaders.

“The idea here came from the sense that Wharton needed to think more “outside the box” in structuring its relationship to graduates in the next generation – seeking meaningful, ongoing ways to create a “knowledge community” beyond the usual reunions, alumni clubs, and other traditional alumni activities,” said Shell in an email response to questions.

Each year, some 2,000 executives come to the Wharton campus for its executive education programs. “We are looking forward to welcoming many more of our graduates back to campus to re-engage with faculty and with one another in our numerous specialized open-enrollment programs on topics such as negotiations, leadership, and critical thinking,” added Shell. “Executives need different kinds of knowledge at different points in their careers and we think this aspect of the program design will enable Wharton to deliver a unique value proposition to its students for years to come.”


Shell said he was asked by Dean Tom Robertson, who took over Wharton’s top job in 2007, to chair a committee to review the MBA program in May of 2009. When Shell was an assistant professor in the early 1990s, he had been on the MBA committee that forged the last major curriculum overhaul in 1993-94.

“As chair of the MBA Review Committee,” said Shell, “I saw our committee’s job as building on prior internal reviews by surveying alumni, recruiters and business leaders, consulting with our boards, studying what our peer schools had done in recent years, and formulating some ideas on how we might enhance the overall MBA program for Wharton. Wharton is larger in scope and size than most MBA programs, so we were looking for the unique combination of enhancements that would best fit our situation.”


The surveys proved invaluable to the effort. “We learned a number of key facts,” said Shell. “First, both students and faculty told us they desired a more flexible, innovative approach to the required curriculum. This had five aspects – a slightly smaller total number of required credit units, more courses taught in non-traditional (intensive) week-long formats, more opportunities for students to mix required and elective classes throughout the program (freeing space to take more electives in the first year), greater degrees of flexibility for faculty to innovate in the required courses, and greater flexibility for departments in adding (and removing) courses to the required set.