APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

The Future of Business Schools: Restructuring Degrees to Meet Industry Needs

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

The business world is rapidly changing, what are institutions of higher education doing to keep pace with the change? In the first of three episodes on this topic, APU Business Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to President Emeritus Dr. Wallace E. Boston about where he sees the need for innovation in education. Learn about shifts in the need and perception of MBAs, how work experience can contribute to earning educational credit, the concept of stackable credentials, and more.

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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 schools. What’s next?

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 Inc. in July of 2004. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS president in August of 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 reaccreditation 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 coauthored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education.

In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either a CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighbor Care Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a certified public accountant, certified management accountant, and chartered global management accountant. He earned an AB degree in history from Duke University, an MBA in marketing and accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

In 2008, the board of trustees of APUS awarded him a doctorate in business administration, and in April 2017 also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas. Dr. Boston, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Wally Boston: Marie, thank you very much for the invitation. It’s a pleasure.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, it has been an honor having our School of Business renamed after you. You have provided a wealth of knowledge and insight while leading our institution. In that, recently there have been a number of articles on the comeback of the MBA program, and we had a conversation last week on this topic. Although you’re retired, I’m sure you’re caught up on what’s going on. What are your thoughts about why there is a turnaround with the MBA?

Dr. Wally Boston: Well, I think part of it may be induced with the pandemic for working adults who no longer have to commute because they’re working from home. Going back to school, particularly if the school that they’re attending offers coursework and courses online, is much easier. They cut out commuting time. I had jobs where my commuting time was anywhere between an hour and an hour and 45 minutes each way. So, if there are other working adults out there that have that type of commuting time, you can almost do all your coursework you need to just by getting up, rolling out of bed, going to work, and then saving that time for working in the evening when you need to do homework.

[Podcast: Coronavirus and Its Impact on Higher Education]

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. Yes. It’s an ideal time for some people to think about new careers possibly. I see you have an MBA as well. What do you believe that current employers are looking for in terms of graduates on how to run their companies during this period of time?

Dr. Wally Boston: That’s a good question. I think we’re still evolving as far as what current employers are looking for. So, there’s always the specific skillset that an employer’s looking for, which involves not just an education but experience.

So, for example, if I’m looking for an experienced financial analyst, getting someone who’s right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree; if they have never done that work, I’m not going to hire them.

At the same time, if I’m looking for entry-level positions and I want to make sure that they have a proper background, an MBA, certainly, generally the requirements of an MBA are going to provide me the assurances that someone is going to be capable of doing the analysis that I want to do, and I can train them since I’m looking for an entry-level position.

So, I think you have to differentiate between the two. The good news is that most MBA students these days have experience from somewhere. I think particularly in our program’s cases, most of our students are working already, have experience in the work arena, and they want to add to their credentials to either gain promotions or switch employers, or even to switch industries.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. I liked how you address that students who are currently in their particular field. We are noticing an upswing in students who want to transition to something different. I think it might have to deal with the pandemic. People are shooting for their dreams now, given the situation. What would your advice be to someone who is trying to transition their career and they want to go for an MBA program? Would you advise that, or would you have them do some other things first?

Dr. Wally Boston: That’s a very good question, Marie. I think some of it depends on how long have they been working? As you know, I have twin daughters who are juniors in college currently, and so their work experience is limited to part-time jobs over the summer or Christmas vacation pretty much. For them, if they were to go directly from undergrad into an MBA program, they’re still going to get an entry-level job somewhere. They’re probably going to get an entry-level job that pays a little more, recognizing that they went to a couple of years extra of school, but they’re not going to get that job that requires substantial experience because they don’t have it.

If, on the other hand, I’m someone who’s been out in the working world for about five years or longer, and really feel like my opportunities for promotions are somewhat limited, either because of the particular area that I’m in, or just that as I look around and I see who’s getting promoted, it’s people who have MBAs already, then I think an MBA’s ideally suited.

I think it’s always important if you’re really happy at the company that you work for or the entity that you work for, for example, if you’re in the federal government, you really want to try to find a mentor or try to find an advisor who can help you honestly look at the employees around you and say, “This is what it takes for this person to get promoted here.”

I would say that in many companies, a MBA is a good ticket, but not in all companies. That’s really where you have to make the decision whether you want to take the time and the money to go back to school and get an MBA.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Now, we were having the conversation about MBA programs and the various concentrations that are in that particular program. Do you see that type of programming to continue into the new norm, or do you think there’s going to be a restructuring or repurpose of the MBA and graduate programs in business?

Dr. Wally Boston: Wow. That’s a great question, Marie. As I look at business schools over the last 20, 25 years, many of them have seen a reduction in the full-time MBA population and increase in the part-time MBA population. And in some cases, an increase in the population of students who are looking for a degree that’s very specific to what they know they want to do in their job. I’ll give you three examples, actually.

The CPA profession now requires anyone who wants to get a CPA an extra year’s worth of accounting courses beyond a four-year bachelor’s degree. So, many schools said, “We really don’t want somebody to come back here and take an extra year’s worth of classes and not be recognized for it.” So, they put together a master’s, tailored it specifically for what the AICPA was looking in its standards in requiring an extra year’s worth of education.

Other areas like marketing, as you know, marketing has gotten much more sophisticated with social media marketing and using Google for search, Facebook for peeling out profiles. So, there are many master’s degrees in marketing that offer you options to get skills in the type of data analytics that goes beyond what the MBA provides, which is a couple of usually case study-oriented courses and some statistics. So, that’s another area, and usually master’s in marketing or master’s in accounting are one-year degrees.

And then the third one is a master’s in finance, that many times, someone who’s able to get a job either in a bank or an investment bank right from an undergraduate program, instead of an MBA, they feel very comfortable that they know what they want to do, it’s in finance. And so business schools that have offered those three programs, master’s in accountancy, master’s in marketing, and a master’s in finance, and that’s actually made up for some of the loss they’ve had in the full-time MBA program.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That’s a good tactic, and I’m glad you brought that up because I have a question that was asked of me by a prospective student, and that was, she has been in the accounting field for about 25 to 30 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in business administration. In order to get promoted, she’s going to have to go for a master’s degree. She’s not interested in the CPA because she’s doing corporate accounting. What type of educational path would you recommend a person in that type of situation?

Dr. Wally Boston: Just off the top of my head, it sounds like she would benefit from a master’s in marketing. I really think the MBA, if you go back in history, the original MBAs were not designed for someone with an undergraduate degree in business. They were designed for someone like myself who had an undergraduate degree in liberal arts. So, I double majored in history and English. I needed an MBA to have legitimate credentials for businesses.

That’s why the MBA had broad application of required courses in marketing, finance, and accounting, and then you could concentrate in something towards the tail end of the program. In her particular case, I might consider, if she’s really active in the travel part of it, a master’s in marketing.

But my first advice would be, if you really love your company, ask an older person who’s been promoted, someone you respect, a supervisor, what the credentials are that the company values the most before you go down the path to a specific degree program.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. That’s excellent advice. I’ve been writing everything down because although I had that specific request from a student, we get a lot of questions from our current students as they prepare to graduate and go into the workforce. Some of them are staying with their companies and some are looking for new opportunities. But the advice, especially what you’ve been giving, I think is very helpful. I would have never thought of the master’s in marketing, but I see how you made that transition.

Another topic that you and I talked about was what is the future of the business schools? We have especially accreditation that sometimes give us a focus point. One year, it was ethics. One year, it was diversity. What are your thoughts about where should business schools be focusing in terms of curriculum, efforts to attract the current student base that are actively seeking business degrees? What’s your thoughts on that?

Dr. Wally Boston: That’s a great question. If you look at what the politicians are trying to do, they are trying to neutralize degrees or institutions as a signaling process. By signaling process, I mean that if you went to Harvard, you’re really smart, therefore we don’t really care what you majored in. We can train you. Or if you have an MBA, you’ve done X, Y, and Z. So, if I’m thinking about how business schools need to be prepared for the future, I think degrees are always going to be important.

I really think that more and more undergraduates are looking for degrees that are going to help them get that first job, and I think a business degree as an undergraduate is great. We’re talking 1970s when I graduated from college. I majored in liberal arts because no one discouraged me from doing it.

Then when I started interviewing with companies, they said, “Well, if you don’t have a business degree, we can put you in sales.” Well, I didn’t really want to go into sales. So, that’s why I got an MBA. But at the age of 22, I just wasn’t really ready to go into sales after I’d spent four years in college.

I think that business schools need to be prepared for shorter lengths of education, and I’m not necessarily talking about a certificate versus a degree, but I’m talking about specialized niches and more what they call the stackable credentials. So, for an undergraduate that is looking to enhance their position in corporate America, perhaps you could have a 12-week credential in data analytics, teaching them the tools so that they can go to someone in their office and say, “By the way, I’m pretty good with this.” It’s not just Excel. It’s Excel and it’s looking at Tableau, some of the search capabilities, and some of the software out there.

You have to be satisfied that as a business school, that those certificates may or may not be cumulative by someone, that someone may not choose to eventually earn a master’s degree. At the same time, they ought to be able to be stacked into a master’s degree. I think that the requirements of many schools for master’s degree, the required courses need to have some leeway for individuals who bring experience into the equation.

Typically, very few schools allow individuals to transfer credits into a master’s degree program. The market is much more sensitive to evaluating people’s experience and offering them credit because it’s time to earn the credential. If you can give them credit for something they’ve learned on the job, then reduce the time it takes for them to earn the credit. So, the flexibility.

Partnerships with employers, knowing what the employers are looking for, and proposing an interactive dialogue where you say, “Okay. If we give you a MBA, but our MBA student waived finance course because they had three years of financial analysis in their job with Merrill Lynch,” for example, if the employer says, “Okay,” then we ought to give them that option.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like those thoughts. They’re very innovative and I think they’re reaching out to the audiences who believe that higher ed just doesn’t get it anymore. I see the practical application of a lot of your recommendations. But Dr. Boston, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise on this timely topic.

Dr. Wally Boston: Well, Marie, it’s been my pleasure. I’m glad to join you anytime. You’re one of my favorite Deans.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Thank you, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. 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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