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Dean's Corner: Reaching Millennials and Gen Xers in the Classroom

June 2015

John T. Delaney

By John T. Delaney, Dean, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh


Members of the millennial generation are often characterized as digital natives, a group of individuals attached to their mobile devices as the first generation born in the Internet era. When we consider how to reach this generation, we seek out the most effective and quickest ways to grab their attention—texting, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and video calls. Just as we have watched this generation influence traditional means of communication, I have witnessed firsthand the simultaneous changes millennials are driving in the classroom. In higher education, the classroom dynamic is evolving to keep up with these students. Yet, contrary to popular belief, “plugging in” for class may not be the best way to reach them.

According to the 2015 Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) Survey Report, millennials (born between 1981 and 1998) prefer less online learning than older students seeking MBA or graduate business degrees. Millennials reported seeking 19 percent of their educational content to be delivered online, whereas Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) prefer 31 percent of their class work to take place online. Surprisingly, baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) expressed the greatest interest in online programs. For example, baby boomers seeking full-time, one-year MBAs prefer nearly half (44 percent) of their coursework delivered online compared to Gen Xer’s and millennials, who prefer only 28 percent and 22 percent respectively. In an era where nearly everything is moving online, why is it that we see baby boomers embracing the digital classrooms as digital native students back away?

The answer is due in part to the sample of students responding to GMAC. The sample comprises individuals interested in securing graduate business degrees and is predominantly made up of millennials—the generation that includes people currently between 24 and 30 years old, the age group that historically seeks graduate business degrees. Older students, whether from Gen X or the baby boomers, likely desire the quickest and most convenient route to a degree because they have less time to leverage the education relative to millennials. Thus, openness to online options is a sensible strategy for the older cohorts seeking degrees.

Among millennials responding to the GMAC survey, however, the preference was for a program providing about one-fourth of content online and the rest through traditional means. In addition, relative to baby boomers, millennials and Gen Xers had a greater interest in programs that leveraged research in the classroom. What does this mean for business schools rushing to provide digital content in response to the hype from entrepreneurs about the inevitable triumph of technology in providing higher education?

One answer is that classroom learning, however old fashioned it seems in today’s technological landscape, is still a major draw for younger students. Virtually all of the respondents to the GMAC survey (over 90 percent on average) indicated a preference for “active learning” or experiential education. Could it be that this generation, who is used to receiving information through a screen, still values the power of face-to-face communication when it comes to learning? Perhaps, but it is evident that students understand that online experiences that solely present information will not offer the value of programs that emphasize application and experience.

At Katz, we’ve integrated experience-based learning into all aspects of our curriculum. In every class, students are challenged to apply business theory to practical assignments, which are based on case studies or data from real-world examples. In addition, we offer a variety of real-world experiences to augment this learning, including consulting field projects, in which students complete a management assignment for a sponsoring company; the Global Research Practicum, in which students complete a short-term global business project abroad; and the Management Simulation capstone, in which students play the roles of an executive team and report to a live board of directors. Many business schools have similar experiential opportunities, and I suspect that all students respond in the same way as our students: they seek out and totally consume all types of hands-on learning. Students may be digital natives, but they understand that there is still no substitute for learning by doing.

The GMAC survey also revealed some interesting and inconsistent findings regarding learning preferences across generations. The most interesting include the findings that millennials describe preferences for lenient rather than rigorous approaches, for formal rather than casual classroom interactions, for team-based rather than individual work, for authoritarian rather than egalitarian settings, and for a competitive rather than collaborative environment.

It is difficult to make sense of the contrary views. Still, there are four conclusions that deans and business schools should draw from the GMAC results. First, business schools do not face an either/or future in which digital programs will trump all others. Technology must be blended with experiential opportunities and strong coaching/guidance to create platforms that accelerate student development. We must focus on approaches that provide the best outcomes for students, which will require an integration of digital and traditional methods.

Second, older and nontraditional applicants to business programs will likely seek schools that deliver education efficiently. This means that digital approaches will potentially disrupt the part-time and nontraditional markets significantly. For schools that derive substantial revenues from these market segments, the lesson is clear: leverage digital approaches to offer students a faster path to degree completion, or prepare to exit this segment of the market.

Third, professors will continue to have an opportunity to command respect in the classroom as long as they provide students with the opportunities to apply business knowledge (and research) and offer coaching on how to develop necessary skill sets. This is not without challenge, because millennials desire competitive and team-oriented environments, and research faculty often lack the time necessary to manage that contradiction along with the duties they are assigned.

Fourth, the preferences of millennials provide some breathing room to business schools that have not yet determined how to evolve programs and approaches. Administrators, as a result, have space to consider other learning structures, such as competency-based education. But it is clear that those who delay too long risk their future. The time is ripe for business schools to enlist their best professors to outline an approach to which the millennials will respond.

The generational differences in learning preferences apparent in the GMAC survey need to be noted by higher education institutions. Striking the proper balance between digital instruction and personal coaching is critical to the success of students as they leave business school and enter the workforce. Digital approaches will fail if they serve only as information delivery systems. Finding the proper balance of technology and application is also crucial for professors. Faculty must learn to adapt to students who have grown up with digital approaches and expect social media experiences—information transparency and feedback—while providing intense experiential options in the classroom.


John T. Delaney serves as the sixth dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Business since its establishment in 1960. As dean, he is responsible for more than 2,500 graduate and undergraduate students and 70 full-time faculty members. Delaney earned his BS in industrial relations from LeMoyne College in 1977 and his AM and PhD in labor and industrial relations from the University of Illinois in 1980 and 1983, respectively. Delaney’s previous posts include faculty and administrative appointments at Columbia University, the University of Iowa, and Michigan State University, where he served as professor of management and associate dean for MBA Programs until moving to Pitt. Delaney is widely recognized for his scholarship in negotiation, dispute resolution, and labor-management relations and has published numerous books, reports and articles since 1980. He has also been interviewed and quoted by reporters from many prominent news organizations.