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UpFront: Opportunity Knocks

By John Fernandes

Higher education, in many sectors, has faced continuing reductions in subsidies and other non-tuition revenue. While some have steadily increased tuition, many universities are finding it harder and harder to balance their budgets. Most likely, tuition will continue rising for some time, but it is unlikely that it can or should be the sole mechanism for balancing budgets as societal financial support dwindles. It is not right to make higher education degrees either unaffordable or achievable only with significant debt acquisition.

So what is it that can be done? There are many avenues of non-tuition revenue streams that an institution of higher education might pursue. However, I am going to discuss just one area that I believe is surprisingly underperforming its revenue potential. Post-graduate education, particularly programs that offer skills enhancement, is on the rise and has a very bright future. There are a number of factors causing this potential boon in non-degree education.

The Coming of Age of Online Education

It wasn't so long ago when many higher education stakeholders refused to embrace the potential of online education. I, for one, felt that it would be unconscionable to send an 18-year-old freshman to an isolated online degree program. What would emerge four years later? Even experienced workers would likely miss out on key learning goals if the program were solely online. Yet, now it is evident that the market is driving more and more development of online education. Jim Dean, who is the dean of the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina, said on a recent segment of eNEWSLINE Live, "The [business education] marketplace continues to change ... we can't expect that the traditional approach to MBA programs, or for that matter undergraduate programs or others, is going to work forever." For sure, online education has matured in the past ten years and its scalability and reach beyond traditional degree programs could ignite an underperforming post graduate revenue source for universities worldwide.

Certificates of Expertise are en Vogue

Few would argue that today's degree programs are under stress to deliver ever-increasing graduate capacities with shorter duration and more flexible delivery mechanisms. The fact is, society is demanding more and more expertise in its leaders. The global economy and markets require an increasingly knowledgeable workforce and keeping up with technology is a challenge that must be managed to the advantage of the business. These trends are here to stay, and like it or not, there will be continuing pressure to cover more in shorter degree programs. I believe that inevitably, short duration, highly focused, skill-building programs will be widely accepted as an effective strategy to supplement degree programs. Universities and business schools in particular must be leaders in devising short-duration certificate and open programs that quickly advance the student's expertise. While lifelong learning has been an admired ambition for quite a long time, shorter degree programs, coupled with increased need for varying capacities, will motivate quickly delivered programs, with or without a certificate validating the graduate's expertise. Our schools must become leaders in designing and delivering short-duration skills building programs. My suggestion is that several schools in a geographical area working as a team could reduce duplication of offerings and expand their markets by recruiting each others' graduates into these programs.

Educators are Re-Inventing Themselves

Technology, global readiness and broad managerial expertise are sought after by organizations competing in a global economy. These individuals, to be successful, are going to need the expertise and flexible application of high-quality educators. The drive toward increasing expertise in narrow disciplines has been a major emphasis of business school academicians the past sixty years, and the professionalism of business schools has advanced greatly. Yet, the needs of the global economy have altered the immediacy of a change in the makeup and orientation of many of our leading educators. Our researchers and teachers will need to use their well-honed skills to develop more flexible, short-duration skill-building programs. Employers and students are demanding it. Making this change in orientation will be a significant effort for many, and contrary to traditional academic strategy. These individuals should receive financial and other incentives to change their focus. I think that the revenue advantage and demand for short-duration skill-building programs will enable not only the funding of these new constructs, but also provide the revenue needed to partially fill the budget gap left by dwindling subsidies.

There are many avenues of opportunity for higher education in filling the knowledge gap left by the galloping global economy. Our mission is to find effective ways to fill these gaps.


John Fernandes
President and CEO
AACSB International