Facilitated by Lee Davidson, Senior Associate Copywriter/Editor, AACSB International
The word “impact” has become a buzzword in recent years in the field of management education, and in higher education in general. This small word carries enormous weight, as it is something business school leaders are now zealously striving to define, to create, and to measure. Where does one begin the process of bringing concrete meaning and actuality to this idea?
We spoke with Bela Musits, dean of the School of Management at Union Graduate College and co-creator and a facilitator of AACSB’s Enhancing and Measuring Impact Forum, to gain some insights into this industry-wide challenge and to get a sneak-peek into the workshop, which is designed to help individual schools achieve an effective understanding of impact and how it can be successfully implemented and measured for their unique purposes.
What is driving the current focus on impact in business schools?
Bela Musits: Impact is one of three pillars of AACSB accreditation, so that’s the simplest answer. But I think the truth is that business schools every day are under more and more pressure to respond to various different constituencies. The publics, of course, have lots of pressures from the legislatures, and then everybody has pressures from trustees, students, parents, alumni, and the business community—they’re all asking the question, “What do you do that is of value to me?” So I think our ability to articulate the impact we have on those various different constituencies is very important.
Do you think there’s anything that’s more urgent about that question today than, say, a decade ago?
Musits: I think a decade ago people didn’t even ask that question. What’s brought focus to this is the rapid increase in the high cost of education—student debt—so now people are saying, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” Like healthcare, higher education is tracking way above inflation when it comes to increasing cost. Just like healthcare is getting a tremendous amount of scrutiny, because there’s a lot of public support for it—a lot of public funding, higher education is the same way. So I think that’s what’s gotten a much broader set of people asking those questions than in the past, at the federal, state, and local levels.
What has impact in higher education come to mean in this modern day, and how does it relate to business schools specifically?
Musits: Business schools are now in a position in which they are expected to be engaged with the business community. All “professional” schools are expected to be involved with their respective communities. For example, a medical school is expected to be involved with the medical community. A law school is expected to be engaged with the legal community. And society, in the broad sense, has come to expect a business school to be engaged with the business community, and a business school does scholarly activity that in the long run helps businesses improve—not just to make more money, but to improve society and create economic growth, financial stability, and jobs.
How might the focus of impact at a small regional school differ from that at a large global school?
Musits: A small regional school is in many ways very much focused on their catchment basin—where their students came from and what impact they have on the community. And they tend to be very engaged at the regional, local level. For example, my school is very small, and there’s a very large R1 institution close to us, and they do very little in the local community; they’re focused very much at the national and international level.
So a school’s region and size drives a lot of where they focus because of that. Similarly, a school’s constituents are different; the president’s commission on such-and-such is not calling us, but they might be calling the R1 institution, because of the school’s research focus. So if different schools are focused on different things, they’re impacting different constituents. When faculty engage with the local business community, that’s impact. When I have students do internships in the local community, that’s impact. At a big R1 institution, their students may do internships at some of the corporations they have research agreements with, which are halfway across the world. That’s also impact. So these impacts are very different, but they’re equally important.
Do you sometimes see a need for schools to adjust their mission in order to create more or better impact that is measurable?
Musits: A business school’s mission should help define what it does, and if the school knows what it’s supposed to be doing, then it should be able to try to measure impact with respect to that mission.
For example, part of our mission statement at our business school is to educate students for lifelong learning and to provide them lifelong learning opportunities. So we have set up programs in which alumni can take up to a certain number of courses with us for 50 percent of normal tuition. And we measure how many people do that, because it’s part of our mission statement. So the mission statement helps define what a school should be doing and what it should focus on. Then you can say, if these are the five things I should focus on, I can now measure how I’m impacting these focal points.
In the example I gave, lifelong learning opportunities for our graduates, I can say, “Look, we give them opportunities to take courses, and last year 23 of them took a course from us.” At an R1 institution, part of the mission statement might say “creation of new knowledge,” and that school had better be doing some real, basic research that creates impact. But for us, we don’t even have the word “research” in our mission statement because we’re small, but a bigger school probably has it in there prominently. So the mission statement helps define what a school needs to do and what it needs to focus on, and then they can figure out what to measure, and if those actions can be measured, the school can figure out what their impact is.
Can you share any examples of ways that business schools have successfully measured impact?
Musits: Simple things like job placement after graduation—everyone probably already measures that. And that’s a measure of how well you prepare your students for professional careers.
Something much more difficult to measure is 10 years post-graduation, what type of leadership positions are alumni in? You have to track alumni down 10 years after graduation, and they often vanish, so that’s a much harder thing to measure.
Then something like measuring impact on the community gets a little more nebulous. Sometimes what happens is, the way a school infers impact is by the activities it does. So I might say, last year in our community, we ran these five workshops to help nonprofits raise money, and we had 30 people attend. One might say that’s impact, but whether those nonprofits raised money is not measured, which would be the true measurement, so it’s important to set up specific parameters in the beginning. There are both direct and indirect measures to consider.
What do you believe schools struggle with the most in creating and measuring impact?
Musits: This concept is just new to everybody, so people are trying to figure out what impact is—what it means, how it’s measured, what its criteria are.
One of the things we try to do in the Enhancing and Measuring Impact Forum is to point out that impact measurement is not prescriptive; rather, we try to give people tools to determine what’s important to them, driven from their school’s mission. We help them identify what they should be doing and provide them with the necessary means to help them measure and articulate how to measure impact. Sometimes people want a prescriptive answer, but measuring impact is not a formulaic, one-size-fits-all approach.
It’s sort of like 10 years ago when assessment of learning was introduced. People didn’t know what it was. But after people went through two accreditation cycles, then it became clear. Similarly, impact is a new thing, and we’re just starting the accreditation cycle, so there are still a lot of questions.