A Q&A about how to move forward

Faced with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, we asked two deans from top business schools to describe the future of business education—and how to prepare for it. Both Paulo Goes, dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, and Sharon Matusik, dean of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, agree that changes have been a long time coming. Here are their specific tactics for success in the post-COVID-19 era.


Paulo GoesPaulo Goes

Dean, Eller College of Management
University of Arizona

Q: How has COVID-19 disrupted business education? 

A: Even before COVID-19, technology forces of the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” were in motion to bring smart automation to all segments of the economy and society--and in the process, change the nature of business. COVID-19 has accelerated that digitization, quickly forcing all of us to rethink the concept of work. Now business schools are tasked with developing educational programs that will equip students, tomorrow’s workforce, for the new environment.

Q: How do we adjust our programs to meet the demands of the new work environment?

A: We must consider the changes that are happening with work, the workforce and the workplace. 

Work will be more and more based on technology-human interactions. In our programs we have to stress the development and refinement of “human capabilities.” We need to generate broad and critical thinkers, problem solvers, risk takers, team players, and professionals with drive, empathy, and resilience, among other important human features. How do we do it? We need to experiment with and embrace experiential learning in many different ways. Partnerships with industry will be key.  

The workforce concept has changed substantially. Hierarchical organizations are flattening. Work is contracted out, and the gig economy is already so prevalent. COVID-19 has also changed the concept of the workplace. Remote work will continue. In many industries it will be the norm. Like the business world, business schools will need to be flexible and adaptable to the new marketplace and its demand for online learning formats. COVID-19 has shown that it is possible to do a lot remotely and be efficient at it.  

Q: How do we meet the needs of tomorrow’s working professionals?

A: Business school will have tremendous opportunities to do more with working professionals. In a rapidly changing world, working professionals will be looking to enhance their knowledge.

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“MBA programs will face increasing demand; we are already witnessing that. But we have to be smart in how we offer graduate business degrees.”

Dean Paulo Goes, Eller College of Management

Working professionals will demand flexibility and access. Business schools will have to leverage remote learning and also create opportunities for extracurricular in-person, live interactions. Hybrid programs will proliferate, delivering a combination of remote and in-person experiences.

We also need to embrace the concept of lifelong learning and be able to combine non-degree programs with degree programs. There is a lot of talk about stackability through certificates, but universities, especially large public ones, still operate in the 20th Century with antiquated rules and restrictions. 

Q: How will the traditional four-year business degree be different?

A: At the undergraduate level, we will all experience dramatic changes in the demand for traditional four-year college degrees. COVID-19 and its economic aftermath have started to affect how students and parents decide where to attend college. The so-called 2026 demographic cliff will bring a very competitive environment with reduced numbers of applicants and more tuition discounting.

I think business will still be a popular major, but we will have to be smart about how we compete. We will need to be more open to transfer students and community college pipelines. Offering programs and exciting opportunities that go well beyond classroom instruction will be key for the needed differentiation, including experiential learning, professional development and alumni connections. It will be about the experience and the preparation for the new business world.  

Q: What are you doing now to prepare for the business school landscape post-COVID-19? 

A: We are moving toward our own implementation of the concepts I described at the graduate level. I believe that our success overall as a business school relies on the success of graduate programs and how we serve the population of working professionals by being flexible and market-driven. That demand will only grow.  

We are taking our successful online MBA program and transforming it into a growth platform in the following ways: (1) adding exciting in-person, live components that are tailored for specific audiences, such as corporate partnerships or a specific industry like healthcare; (2) offering dual degrees and adjusting the online MBA curriculum to allow students to complete both an MBA and a MS degree in two years; and (3) designing and testing different ideas for lifelong learning.

For working professionals, we need to offer both breadth (honing those human capabilities) and depth in terms of deep expertise. We have to allow the students to choose where on that continuum they want to be, and also make sure they will keep coming back. It is a lifelong process.

Sharon MatusikSharon

Dean, Leeds School of Business
University of Colorado Boulder

Q: What is the main impact of COVID-19 on business schools?   

A: While we all work through the many current challenges associated with delivering a high-quality educational experience and moving forward on our research mission in the face of COVID-19, the question on the minds of everyone is what this chapter means for business education longer term. As others have noted, COVID-19 is amplifying trends that have been slowly accelerating over time. 

Q: Technology is top of mind for business school deans everywhere. How can schools successfully implement this new delivery model?

A: The effective use of technology in delivering business higher education is an issue business schools have been grappling with for the last couple of decades. The last eight months have pushed virtually every university in the world forward in terms of building skillsets in this area among faculty, and also forcing student adoption of remote learning.

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“Successful business schools will be those that have the right mix of technology and in-person experiences that fits with their distinctive resources and competencies. There will not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula that differentiates the winners from the losers.”

Dean Sharon Matusik, Leeds School of Business

Some universities will push aggressively in the online space, aiming to secure a low-cost position in the market, with programs offered at a low price point and with low involvement of their premier faculty assets. Now that many more universities have technology capabilities, price competition among these programs will intensify. When price is comparable, higher-status universities within a regional geography are likely to be more successful in terms of student enrollments.

The challenge these programs face is managing the math. While it is easy to look at high enrollment numbers with admiration, arrangements with OPMs that take significant revenue shares off of the top, along with pressures to include engagement activities as a complement to online education and driving the cost structure up, can make it challenging to manage online programs financially, especially in the face of more intense price competition from new entrants into the online space. Likely there will be consolidation in this segment of the market after an initial increase of entrants into this space.

Q: How can we preserve the ‘human side’ of the business school experience?

A: We know that we are all inherently social beings and that there are significant benefits to human interaction, ranging from the obvious mental health considerations to the well-documented innovation benefits that arise from “productive collisions” of people from different backgrounds and with different kinds of expertise. Couple that with the urbanization trends associated with developing smaller communities even within large urban areas, and universities are well-positioned to be a hub for creating this sense of community.

Universities that focus on connections to the community and creating community, alongside the delivery of content knowledge, will be well-positioned to meet these demands. The key will be clear articulation of their value proposition in the face of the price competition from more bare-bones, online-focused programs. That is not to say that these programs should ignore the great flexibility that technology can provide in delivering a business education. Quite the contrary.

Q: How will students most benefit from remote learning?

A: Programs for working professionals stand to benefit greatly from hybrid delivery models where the great convenience and flexibility of technology is used to deliver some of the content, complemented by high-engagement, in-person components carefully designed to use valuable in-person time wisely. 

Traditional undergraduate programs can also use remote course offerings to accommodate those who are pursuing internships while completing their degree, ensuring that critical path courses are available to all who need them in order to improve four-year graduation rates and keep students on track.

There are also many best practices that will improve access to knowledge and resources for students at all levels. For example, faculty office hours, advising appointments, mentoring and career counseling are all very effective in a remote setting. Having both in-person and remote options for these critical services can be an effective tool to make sure students are moving forward in their programs.

From providing easier access to courses and services to designing programs that carefully integrate technology and in-person learning, there are exciting new opportunities on the horizon. That said, without a doubt, there will be increasing cost competition. That means universities with low-cost structures or those who can clearly communicate the value they offer beyond simple content delivery will fare the best.

Published: Dec. 15, 2020