Most people don’t think of Boston as a college town. In reality, 20% of the population is composed of college students, with the city boasting three dozen higher education institutions. In the business arena, that includes Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan – not to mention Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern University, and Babson College. While Boston draws students from across the world, “The Hub” remains a tough place to compete in the education sector.
To succeed, you need to craft an identity and create a niche. Traditionally, the Questrom School has possessed a knack for branding. The school’s new dean, Susan Fournier, is even recognized as an expert in the field. Eight years ago, the school rolled the dice, anchoring its full-time curriculum to health care and life sciences, digital technology, and alternative energy and sustainability. Back then, they were ‘growth areas’ looming on the horizon. Today, they are business staples directing company strategy. Now, Questrom is starting down a new path. Surveying the marketplace, the school is launching a new online MBA program this fall in partnership with the edX platform. For just $24,000, professionals can earn a Questrom MBA.
That’s a pretty modest cost in a neighborhood where average online tuition is $75,000. On the high end, a Carnegie Mellon online MBA will run $137,200, with a degree from the Wisconsin Consortium coming in around $23,250. Of course, Questrom’s price – while “disruptive” in Fournier’s words – isn’t necessarily the big issue. In 2017, the University of Iowa announced it would shut down its full-time MBA program to focus on its more lucrative executive and master’s categories. Last year, the University of Illinois began to phase out its full-time program in favor of its online platform…and its 2,600 students.
Such events reverberate and raise certain questions. Questrom itself is home to 300 full-time and 700 part-ime MBAs. Ranked 42nd by Poets&Quants, Questrom aligns closely with the orbit of Iowa and Illinois – before they moved out of the full-time space. Could the online program cannibalize existing Questrom programs with its lower price point – or boost its brand with a wider and deeper footprint? Will online make full-time less feasible to run financially – or provide an impetus for new programming and activities?
Dean Fournier understands the risks associated with scaling. Beyond the surface, she notes, these programs are separate entities. “This is in no way a signal that our on-campus is dying,” she tells P&Q in a 2019 interview. “This is in no way a retreat from that market or our commitment to it. More importantly, this is in no way in our mind a situation of substitutes. This is not substituting for the full-time MBA. That is a completely different segment. On-campus, online — completely different segments. Different needs, different audiences, different programs, different programming experiences.”
This difference, she says, frees up the school to innovate. Delving into the latest academic research, Questrom faculty crafted a five-module curriculum. Rather than breaking the content into standard areas like marketing and finance, the online program will tackle the following areas: Leading with Integrity; Creating a Socially Responsible Business in the Digital Age; Developing an Innovative Mindset; Pursuing a Global Business Opportunity; and Learning Data-Driven Decision Making. Fournier calls it a curriculum with a “strong point of view.” Across 21 months – and requiring a minimum of 16 hours per week – the Questrom online MBA weaves together deeply-connected programming that even removes electives.
“We are then putting together content inside those modules that integrates across all relevant disciplines,” Fournier tells P&Q. “So for example, if you’re going to be in the innovation module, you’re not going to have a marketing class and an IT class and a stretch. You’re going to have everything you need to be able to advance the innovation mission of an organization… You take these five mods, they’re in sequence, you go from one to one and you are done. You’re ready. So that’s the other big thing about our program that is very strongly differentiated from our on-campus programs.”
Sounds great in theory. Question is, can Questrom deliver it all at a $24,000 price point? Questrom conducted a lot of research, plotting out enrollments and prices of existing programs. The takeaway? There may be a reckoning coming – one that places Questrom in the perfect spot to capitalize.
“There are a lot of people at the top,” Fournier adds. “It’s very crowded, increasingly crowded. And it’s interesting because we have a lot of anecdotal evidence about some of those programs priced at the top that after many, many years have still failed to be profitable. Part of that is about price elasticity. There’s also, we know, a new program coming in at around $90K. Our little anecdotal evidence suggests that they literally are not getting people in that program. So I think it’s already crowded at the top — and you know, far be it from me to predict the future, but I see a leveling coming.”