Is Traditional Biz Ed At Risk?

Time to sound the alarm? A new report shows that while traditional master’s programs continue to lead the pack in advanced management education, prospective students want one thing above all else: options. In particular, they want flexibility and convenience. And what’s more, in what can be interpreted as a wake-up call for business schools, the new report also shows that nontraditional options such as certificate programs, informal online courses, and digital badges — all of which offer variations in format, flexibility, and convenience — are creating waves that shouldn’t be ignored.

The data comes from a quantitative report commissioned by AACSB International, the Executive MBA Council, and the International Consortium for Executive Education titled Understanding the Implications of the Digital Generation on Business Education. The survey of 1,665 participants, ages 21-40, hailing from multiple countries  found that over 25% believe they can substitute nontraditional alternatives in place of a traditional MBA or MA/MS in Management, while 17.4% feel such alternatives are of equal weight as a substitute or complement a formal or non-degree program. Also, in pursuing certain professional goals, many feel that the more contemporary education options offer nearly the same benefit.


The mission of the survey was to find out what motivates millennials and the so-called “Z generation” to pursue advanced management education. Researchers sought to uncover the evolving wants and needs of prospective students so that B-schools can adapt and differentiate their grad and exec ed programs accordingly. Among other findings, it shows that in the case of nontraditional programs and digital badges — think online workshops and courses, MOOCS, Coursera, and the like — “The sizeable percentage of respondents indicating value, combined with only 8.4% indicating it is not at all valuable, supports the belief that alternatives to traditional credentials are growing in popularity.”

The report concludes that such offerings are direct competitors to the standard MBA and MS in Management programs stating that, “Regarding respondents who stated they are extremely likely or very likely to pursue a Master of Business Administration, or an MA or MS in Business or Management in the next 10 years, they were significantly more likely also to report they are extremely likely to pursue a certificate or digital badge to achieve their professional or personal goals.”

What would make someone consider a nontraditional educational offering in the same category as a coveted MBA or MS degree? The key factor is flexibility. Respondents in the survey make reference to the convenience of nontraditional offerings as it relates to juggling their existing career and their belief that tangible certificates and digital credentials simply add to their professional credibility. Other key themes that seem to make these options favorable include cost and the available subjects that are offered.


Respondents came from a wide range of countries, including the United States, Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, and the UK. Employment status for those surveyed ranged from full-time to part-time to not employed and education level ranged from no college degree all the way through to those who possess a graduate degree of some kind. They were asked a range of questions to get a pulse on their likelihood to pursue advanced management education, their motivations for doing so, and their attitudes towards the options that are available to them in the market.

According to the report, some of the top motivations for pursuing management education include students wanting to improve their leadership and management skills, advance within their organization, and improve their functional skills. Not surprising. But what is surprising is these weren’t the highest rated factors that go into the decision-making. Instead, the survey found that the top two motivators for pursuing management education are to improve one’s own standard of living as well as their family’s followed by increased career stability and job security. These are two motivators that are rarely, if ever, seen in B-schools’ marketing content.

Still, in looking at the top motivations for pursuing management education, the survey found that the traditional MBA or MA/MS in Management are considered the most appropriate choices, signaling that nontraditional options may be gaining a heightened reputation, but the MBA still holds the high ground in terms of perceived value. Coming in second place for highest rating across all motivations are specialized master’s degrees, which scored particularly well among participants who say their main incentive is to improve their functional skills — as well as those looking to gain more credibility in their current jobs and those looking to advance in their company or field.


However, the data that business schools would be wise to keep their eyes on are those motivations in which the market feels nontraditional management education options are just as good a choice as the MBA (if not better) to help achieve their professional goals. For instance, the improvement of leadership and management skills is often a key selling point for business schools for their graduate and executive programs. According to the survey, 33% feel the MBA or MA/MS in Management is the proper choice to pursue that goal, yet very close behind it at 30.7% are the contemporary management course options. In the case of improving technical and functional skills, which is another key selling point of MBA programs, nontraditional courses actually outrank the MBA and MA/MS as the perceived appropriate choice, 26.8% to the MBA’s 22.9%.

The report offers a trove of additional data and further analyses pertaining to gender, age, and geographic variations, as well as preferences for online and in-person learning. Administrators in the MBA space are likely to pay special attention to students’ desires to improve their quality of life and increase job security, while also looking at ways to mimic the flexibility and convenience provided by the less-traditional programs.


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