APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Online Learning Podcast

The Future of Business School: Stackables and Flexible Credentials

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Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould HarperDean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Wally BostonPresident Emeritus, American Public University System

Listen to the first episode in this series: The Future of Business Schools: Restructuring Degrees to Meet Industry Needs

The economy and job opportunities are changing rapidly, forcing institutions of higher learning to adapt by providing innovative and flexible educational offerings. In the second episode in this series, APU Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to President Emeritus Dr. Wallace Boston about the importance of universities and colleges offering customized, flexible credentials including ones that are “stackable.” Learn how stackables can be tailored to fit the needs of working professionals and provide the educational foundation required for career advancement in specific organizations. Learn why it’s so important for educational institutions to partner with industry organizations to understand their needs as well as some of the challenges institutions face in trying to develop a more flexible and customized approach to education.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to discuss The Future of Business School: What’s Next? Part two. My guest is Dr. Wallace E. Boston. I want to take a moment to provide some background information on him. Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System and its parent company American Public Education Incorporated in July 2004. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS president in August, 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and the 10-year re-accreditation in 2011. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degrees and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston, welcome back to our podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Thank you, Marie. It’s a pleasure being here today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’m looking forward to doing this session. We mentioned a number of things in our last visit, and I want to go back to them. In the last session, you mentioned stackable programs. The concept is a buzzword and trending in various industries today. I would like us to use this session to elaborate on what you mean by stackables and how they tie in the future growth of business schools. So my first two questions are: What do you mean when you say stackables? And what is the best way to educate the public on these types of programs?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Marie. I’m going to use some examples by looking at the associate’s degrees that you offer in the School of Business. And so for example, let’s take culinary and food service management. You have an associate of applied science, and as we know, associate’s degrees required generally 60 credit hours, which is roughly two years of a full-time student. And a lot longer than that, if you’re a part-time student.

So if I look at the environment today, let’s say someone with a high school degree who went to work for a restaurant, let’s say a chain restaurant after high school, and is gradually working their way up and now has been offered an opportunity, apprenticeship, so to speak, to go into the management track. Clearly they could benefit from the degree, but at the same time, they may not have time for the degree.

So if there were a short certificate—and I’m not talking about the certificate as mandated by the US Department of Education, which has to be 16 credit hours or greater—a short two or three course certificate, or even a certificate that was one course, but might offer four to six credits, let’s say. That could be tailored to an assistant store manager, let’s say, an assistant restaurant manager, that would apply some basic financial statement, reading skills, operation management skills. Those types of things.

And, in return, once that short certificate was completed, the individual would benefit at work because they would have learned some of the theory behind the practice. And you would accept that certificate for so many credits towards this associate’s degree that we offer.

For example, I don’t know that marketing is included in the existing associate’s degree, but let’s say you and your faculty colleagues decide that it’s actually pretty important to have knowledge of marketing, to be in food service management. And so you have a mini-marketing certificate for people in the restaurant business. What’s the best practice for marketing? And that too stacks, so that the combination of these mini-credentials or mini-certificates ultimately could be stacked into a 60 credit hour associate’s degree.

Now it may be that you only offer so many and you’ve carefully tiered the certificates that you offer, not just so they stack up, but that they are complemented by let’s say two or three basic general education courses like math and English. Because we all know that the higher you go up the ladder in business, generally the better your communication skills, particularly written communication skills have to be. That’s my general idea.

While this has been discussed a lot in theory, there are very few of these out there in practice. And I would say that the trick will be partnering with the right companies or right industry experts, because while you and your faculty colleagues may put together a mini-credential, that’s worth six credit hours, it may be that Outback would like to see something that has a little more beef in it, so to speak. And it would equate to a 12-credit hour course.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I liked that. You actually answered my second question. And it seems as though that what you are describing it is new. You have provided the most practical explanation that I’ve heard to date, and it seems simple.

One of the things that’s happening in industry, at the same time, is organizations are encouraging their employees to take control of their career and that the managers just coach. And what you have described is very plain and simple. And I think any employee can take control and follow the format that you just provided for us.

Now, you brought up the right industry expert. Are you talking about the career and training development individuals in organizations, or are you looking at someone else to be a part of this?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: I think it can vary. And I also think it depends on the way in which you intend to position these many certificates to the general public. So, for example, everyone has heard of McDonald’s Hamburger University. And while I’m not aware that Hamburger University grants a degree, they certainly have enough training courses for franchisees to educate their employees up multiple chains in both the operator level or the management level, including to the point where you can prepare people who’ve been with you for a while to be a franchise owner. That’s not unique to McDonald’s or Hamburger University, but there are other franchises that do the same where people working in them for a while and then can be nominated or selected to attend a class that prepares them to own a franchise.

I think that if you partner with a hospitality chain as large as McDonald’s, or pick another one that has the resources, as well as the employees who would be eligible for this sort of thing, I think you could custom tailor a program specifically for them.

At the same time, I think there’s enough of a market out there that you probably need to take your faculty who have some connections with the industry, in general. And by the way, there may be something called like National Restaurant Tours Association to make something up that may actually be the name of it, but I certainly don’t have any experience with them.

And go to them and say, “What do you view as a step-by-step progression for providing snippets of education?” Here is our curriculum. This is an associate’s degree, but we’re trying to be valuable for someone who’s trying to educate themselves, but not necessarily educate themselves towards earning a degree right away since they’re working full time. But educate themselves so that they’re prepared to take the next level up or the next step up in their organization.

And then that national umbrella of having worked with the National Restaurant Tours Association or the National Hospitality Association, whatever it may be, could give you a broader perspective. But knowing that an organization like McDonald’s that employs several million people, they’d probably want something much more custom tailored.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I like how you said to customize, that’s my preferred way of doing things, not necessarily going into an organization and say, “We have this.” But to enter a dialogue, build on the relationship and pretty much say, “What is it that you’re looking for?”

Would you agree that it’s time for the higher ed professional to want to have a seat at the table with these industry experts? And we’ve talked about other professions having a seat at the table, is it time for higher ed to go in to these corporations?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: I believe that if higher ed doesn’t go in, higher ed is not going to have a seat at the table. I happen to believe that the scarcity of educational content that was prevalent in the ’50s and ’60s is no longer the case, thanks to the internet.

Information is ubiquitous. And quite frankly, free information, if you’re smart enough and knowing how to do your queries, you can find an answer to just about everything and perhaps even including how to build an atomic bomb.

But I think that there is a place for academics to guide the learner so that the learner does not waste time on the journey. And I think that if we, as education institutions, as schools of business, are not proactively asking to be a partner, we run the risk of being left by the side because large corporations have the power to directly hire someone like you to be their chief learning officer. If that’s the case, then you’ve got years of experience in business schools. You can probably build the content or you can even find open educational resources that have the entire curriculum designed.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, I totally agree. And I think that also supports some of the conversations about there’s going to be additional competition. And I think you’re describing that additional competition. And we’ve talked about whether or not there are some higher ed executives that can get that seat at the table. But I’m also hearing rumblings within higher ed institutions, because the leaders don’t know where to position these type of programs.

Now, if you were still among your peers and this topic came up with your wisdom and knowledge, how would you coach them into properly positioning these type of programs in their institutions as it relates to their existing offerings? Because I think that’s where the confusion lies. It’s a new concept to some of them. And then they think about, but what about our flagship programs? How will that affect that? And I think some are apprehensive that it gets into what they would consider their main business.

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Well, we touched about this a little bit on the last call. So I happen to think that if you go back into the ’70s, for example, the flagship programs that most business schools were a bachelor’s in business administration and a MBA.

And if you look at many business schools today, that attendance for particularly the MBA enrollments are down for full-time MBA students. And while there are still full-time MBA students with maybe a couple of institutions like Harvard and Stanford as exceptions, the business schools still have the same number of students, but the schools have adapted and they’ve become specialists in areas like master’s in finance, master’s in accountancy, master’s in marketing.

And the reason they’ve done those is with more and more undergraduates becoming bachelor’s in business recipients, they don’t need an MBA like I did when I double majored in history and English. Someone with an undergraduate degree from, let’s just say the University of Maryland, it’s a general business degree with maybe a concentration in marketing says, “You know what? I really want to get into marketing. I want to get a master’s in marketing. And I want to understand everything there is about social media.”

And so the business schools adapted and they offered those programs. In fact, I even know my alma mater Tulane as a master’s degree in trading, as in securities trading. So you can actually sit at a trading desk and they have a portfolio and people understand how to manage the money and they have competitions between teams. And I don’t know how many business schools have that particular major, but I’m sure they’re probably not the only one. Those specializations are pretty important.

I happen to think that there’s only so many specializations you can have in terms of degrees before you run out of what I would call the economy of scale. So either somebody needs to fund it by making a donation and putting an endowment in place to cover the costs, or you need to look at what the market’s asking for.

And so I think there will always be a need in the market for the MBA. I think there’ll always be a need in the market for the bachelor’s of business. There will be a need for the major concentrations in business like finance, marketing, and accounting. But then on a lesser basis, there will be people who are interested in topics that you have in your school of business, like supply chain management, real estate studies, hospitality, retail management. Those types of things, and schools that have partnerships with large employers will benefit. I mean, I believe that’s how we put up our degree in retail management, for example, when we had a partnership with Walmart.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, one of the areas that comes up a lot, and I just want to hear your thoughts on it, how do you prepare the support functions within the university to start to think in terms of what does the organization need?

And I’ll pick two groups out. Some faculty who have always been faculty and limited experience as a practitioner. I’ll leave it at that. And your instructional designers who may have probably been in higher ed for the bulk of their career, and have not done any of the other industries. How do we get them on board and understand what it is that the businesses are looking for?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Sure. Well, I happened to be old school and from my perspective, the old school approach to hiring faculty at a business school is you either hire somebody who’s a practitioner, who’s working in the field and happens to have the academic credentials that they’re allowed to teach.

A good example of this would be Scott Galloway who’s a professor at NYU and has had involvement with a number of Silicon Valley startups, actively engaged in teaching marketing up there and certainly has the experience. Or you have someone who has the academic credentials and has provided consulting services. I think, it’s tough beyond the basics. Once you get above the basics, I think it is difficult to have a faculty member teach those courses above the basics that did not work in the field, or did not provide consulting assistance to the field.

You can teach anything from a book or from a syllabus on a theoretical basis, but I think that your ability to relate to the students and provide them a grounded basis or examples based on work that you either did as a practitioner or work that you assisted, it’s more than helpful. It’s invaluable because it allows the student once they complete the course or graduate from the program, whatever it is, it allows them to have a perspective to take back to their own workforce and help them with their own career.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. And I totally agree with you. I would even like to say that is the format that we use in our school. And what we have found was that a lot of our students have experience. So if we have too many textbook faculty members, the students can pick that out. Because of their current work experience, they could possibly say what they’re being taught is not accurate.

And that’s pretty much why we changed our method of hiring faculty around because we recognized that our students basically needed someone else, they didn’t need someone that was always doing research in the field, but they needed someone who actually worked in the field and had current experience.

So, I think we’re on point with looking at that particular model. And at the same time, I feel very comfortable with many of them going out on what I call a call on behalf of the school to an organization that needed something customized. So, that’s a win-win situation.

What could we do in terms of preparing a message, a 60-second message, to allow the world to know that we get it. That’s something that came up in an interview that I did, I was describing what you are sharing. And I try to get it down to 60 seconds, so the person could say, “Yeah, you get it.” What would be your idea of a message to show that we get it?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Well, I actually think that you’d have to have several 60-minute messages, but I think you can actually hone the speech down to what we call elevator speeches. You’ve got 60 seconds between the first floor and the 30th floor or whatever. And so how can you tell people what you want to do?

The reason why I think there’s several messages. I think there’s the traditional student who has never taken a course in the business program or the business concentration, be it transportation, logistics, or supply chain management or government contracting.

And then there’s the person who has experience in that area and is looking to complete a degree or to add to their knowledge combining their practical experience. And so I think that the tailor-made message is that for the beginner, you talk about the breadth of material, the breadth of learning and the multiple concentrations that we have. Once you understand where you think you want to go, that’s less than 60 seconds.

But as a good business person, you would want to do your market research and understand where the demand was highest. And if the demand is highest in marketing, accounting or finance, then you would incorporate those three into your 60-second speech.

And then for people who have already spent some time in the field, I think what you want to do is you want to talk about how we can evaluate their learning and either put them in a prior learning assessment class. Or if we’ve got partnerships with some of the big companies, which I hope we do, we can evaluate their training and on-the-job experience and offer credit for that.

I mean, a good example, as you probably remember, is the extensive work we did in sending our faculty out to analyze all the Walmart training classes and building a partnership with them to analyze the training. And once the training was recorded in their personnel file, it converted to even fractional credit hours so that we knew coming in based upon a transcript that we got from their HR department, how many credits we were going to award people.

We could also map to them the future courses that they would take if they were interested in a degree. You can put it into a 60-second soundbite. I do think that not every student is alike, big picture basis, you’ve got students who’ve never earned any business credits. And then you’ve got students who have a lot of business experience, but don’t have a degree. And that’s how I’d market accordingly.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We have a habit of going to extremes. That’s not just higher education or business schools, but I think society in general. In higher ed, I’ve seen the pendulum switch from one extreme to the other in terms of designing programs.

And by that, there’s what you have been describing when you build on. And it’s almost like the person is moving up their career, needing different skillsets, and needing a program that would address that. How does that fit in with schools that have taken the approach of either doing it the way that you suggested, especially for business schools, or another function, let’s say supply chain management, where they would build a program. And let’s say supply chain management wasn’t in the school of business like it is for us. Building a program where everything would be housed inside.

Like they would do supply chain management courses, but when you get into skills such as leadership, team building, they would incorporate it into the field versus having whole courses on that topic. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: I think that business schools tend to tailor those courses based on the type of student that’s their desired or profile applicant. So if they’re more oriented towards a full-time MBA student or a full-time master’s student, graduate student, or a full-time undergraduate, they’re going to put them in a sequence that the faculty determined is the most relevant.

And if they’re oriented towards a part-time student who has substantial job experience, I think they’ll put them somewhere else. I would flip the challenge to you and say, I haven’t seen any business school yet, tailor a degree or certificate programs for individuals who are directly impacted by the gig economy. And so you think about the gig economy is where there are all these independent contractors and they’re not working for anyone other than themselves.

One of the more infamous gig economy jobs is an Uber driver, but there are many more. I mean, there’s many people who are hired contract programmers for companies. There are people who are hired data analysts.

If you think about it, if you are offering me a degree that gives me more business credentials, but for the gig economy, I don’t need leadership courses all that much. I need courses that are much more oriented towards entrepreneurship and salesmanship, but being a leader, if it’s just me and I don’t have any intentions of expanding beyond myself, that’s a waste of my time.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: No, that makes sense. And we have another session coming up with a person that fits the profile you suggested. She relocated to a different area, signed up to be a contractor within an established organization in that area. And then after about a year or two, she went out on her own and built her own company, doing what she was doing as a contractor for the company before.

So some of the things that you were suggesting, she learned them by trial and error, but it would be nice to have a program that we could guide individuals, especially interested in the gig economy. That’s the way that they want to make their living just a different track. And I think what you’re describing offers what I also believe people have been asking for, especially as it relates to programs.

They don’t want something set. They want something that can be flexible, even in terms of curriculum, that will follow the career paths or the journey that they’re taking and what makes sense versus something that’s established. And how is that going to affect accreditation and just different Department of Education guidelines that if we keep changing, because we need to be flexible?

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: I guess I’ve got enough experience with both accreditation and the Department of Education that I feel qualified to talk about this. But typically you’re okay with accreditors as long as you have a process that recommends changes and you go through that process for the recommendation and the approval of the change. And you have appropriately credentialed faculty who are involved in that process. So I don’t worry about the accreditors that much.

The Department of Education on the other hand, it gets a little tricky in that their first interest is to make sure that you are in good standing with your accrediting body. That you have the financial resources that you’re capable of providing an education to people and that you’re not going to lock your doors and close up and leave students halfway through their program with no ability to finish it. And then their third thing is that the courses that you offer that are approved for Title IV financial aid meet those standards.

And that’s probably talking about the Department directly, I think that’s the area where you have to be mindful that currently the Department does not provide financial aid for non-credit courses. So anything that you offer that’s non-credit, someone’s going to have to pay out of pocket for.

Something that you offer that is for credit can be for credit and as little as half a credit or a full credit. But has to be included in a complement of courses that is the equivalent of halftime, meaning that for an undergraduate student, they are taking at least six credit hours during a term or semester.

That’s where I think our system of higher education, financial aid funding through the Department of Education, has not kept up with the times. When we talk about micro-credentials, most micro-credentials by their very definition are less than the 16 credit hours for a certificate. And if they’re less than the 16 credit hours for the certificate, it can’t be funded.

Depending on your perspective, it’s either good or bad. And I would say that if the certificate has a stackable sequence to a certificate that conforms to Title IV or a degree that conforms to Title IV, there ought to be a way to have that qualify and eligible for funding. But unfortunately, that’s going to require the Department and politicians to collaborate to make that recommendation and get it approved before you can change the rules.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: First of all, I want to thank you. At times, it may have seemed like I was bouncing all around the place, but a person with your expertise and experience, and you have a unique way of making things very plain and clear, even for individuals who this may not be their area.

And what I see are a lot of families and even a lot of employees are struggling on what to do in terms of their next step with their education or lifelong learning, because they don’t understand all of these components.

And then we have people in both business and the industry, as well as higher ed who are feeling stuck. They don’t know what the next step should be. So I tried to take you through a journey and have you give your opinion in terms of how do we explain these new types of programs?

What should we do in terms of partnerships with other industries? And what should higher education executives be thinking about as their next or new norm and how they have to do a business? And then internally, how are we going to change the concept, the mindset of our employees who may have been doing something the same way for 20 years and all of a sudden, now we want them to do something totally different?

And I think you’ve done a good job with all of your answers. And then that last one about the accreditation, I did remember your experience with the Department of Education, as well as the accrediting bodies. And that’s also an area that there’s a lot of miscommunication out there. I was watching a couple of YouTube’s last night and the speaker was giving inaccurate information, but people hear that and they believe it as being the gospel. So I’m hoping this session with you speaking, reaches a number of individuals who may be at that point in their life, where they’re trying to figure out what’s next.

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Okay. Well, I’m going to put in a shameless plug, Marie, for my blog, www.wallyboston.com. And one of the things that I do on my blog is I try to talk a lot about higher ed and trends. And I recently reviewed a book by Michelle Weise called “Long Life Learning.” That’s correct, by the way. Not lifelong learning, which is the more popular term, but long life learning.

And what Dr. Weiss says is that with the current living expectation that people born today will probably be expected to live about 100 years, we’re going to have roughly a 60-, 65-year working experience. And if you think about how much technology has changed our work environment in the last 15 to 20 years, and the pace is only going to accelerate with artificial intelligence, the purpose of her book is to talk about how we—and this is a collective we—how we as educational institutions, how we as learners, and how we as employers are prepared for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I did that as a two-part review [Read Part 1 and Part 2] because I felt the book was very good. If you read my review and you think, “Wow, I could really dig into this,” then go spend the $25 for the book and read the book.

I think that you were spot on. You were absolutely correct in saying there’s a lot of people asking a lot of questions, whether they’re students, whether they’re families of students, whether they’re employers, whether they’re our faculty members. I think Dr. Weiss who, by the way, has started out her background as an English professor, but ended up working for Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School and he was really all about change agency and how to embrace change and how to take advantage of those differences. And then more recently, she was chief learning officer for Southern New Hampshire University and Strata Education. And now she works as a consultant for a number of ed tech startups.

I think she’s spot on with what we need to do to prepare. I told my daughters who are juniors in college, that this is their summer reading assignment. It’s probably too late to change what they’re majoring in right now, but as they think about what they’re going to do post-graduation a year or so from now, it really is important that I’ll use a quote from APUS’s founder Jim Etter. Jim told me that if you can summarize the journey of learning and education and adjust a few sentences. And he says, “It starts with learning to read, and it ends up with reading to learn. And you’re involved in reading to learn for a long time.”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah. Long time. Yes. I totally agree with that. And I’m one of those people, you were mentioning your daughters. I love life, and I can never say where I’m going to be or what I’m going to do, I just want to enjoy the journey. And that involves what you were just discussing.

You have to be willing to learn something new, if not every day, and then see where that takes you. And sometimes we don’t know what’s at the end of the road. We just keep going until we get somewhere.

And I appreciate you also bringing up your blog because it’s important to have individuals that you can trust that can speak to a number of different topics. It paints the picture for you. And that’s what you have done for me personally in the time that I’ve known you, is that you can take one of my questions and break it down for me to understand each of the components.

So, to my listeners, I strongly urge you to go over to Dr. Boston’s blog, especially as you endeavor to figure out what you want to do in terms of your education, or even your career plans to figure out where to start. So, Dr. Boston, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for joining me today and sharing your expertise on this timely topic.

Dr. Wallace E. Boston: Thank you, Dr. Harper. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed interfacing with you and your business school colleagues over the years. And I hope to continue many more years of doing the same. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: And thank you to our listeners for joining us today. And remember, please go over to Dr. Boston’s blog to learn additional information on what’s going on in higher education, as well as what’s going on in the marketplace as it relates to careers. Have an amazing day.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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