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Rethinking the MBA

For generations, the MBA has been the gold standard of graduate education in the business world.

But lately, as universities across the nation feel the pressure from declining applications in graduate education, I fear that the MBA is too often being swept up in what can only be described as a race focusing on price competition to see who can offer the cheapest, most efficient, and least personal way to deliver education. 

Why should we rethink the MBA? Is the signal the decline in applications for many (but not all) programs? Is the signal the massive increase in number of people choosing asynchronous online programs? I posit that the signal to be heeded is that disruptive technology that makes online learning possible can be harnessed to augment (not replace) human interaction that occurs both inside and outside the classroom between faculty and students, and among students coming into the program from diverse professional and personal backgrounds.

One of the reasons that professional work experience is a requirement for MBA candidates is because the perspectives they gain in their own careers is a key ingredient to the learning experience.  An important part of an MBA education is having someone with very different experiences than your own look you in the eye, and say, “I disagree with you.” And then explain how their own lived experience informs how they see the question under discussion.

In fact, I believe that human interaction is the beating heart of what has always distinguished the MBA and made it so valuable.

Preparing Leaders

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should keep the MBA frozen in amber, the way it has traditionally been offered as an on-campus-only, two-year program. I am saying we need to rethink the MBA, identifying and keeping those core aspects that truly make it the gold standard while adapting it for the students not only of today, but tomorrow.

Of course, we should be incorporating the latest and best technology in our courses where it makes sense and improves the educational experience. And those declining application numbers are very real, and demand that we be open to creative approaches that meet the needs of potential students.

But not at the cost of the human interaction that best prepares students for leadership in the business world—and life.

My concern is that if market trends continue, and we start looking at the cheapest way to bestow MBAs on graduate students, education becomes just another commodity you can buy off the shelf. Like steak sauce.

I’d rather have the steak.

I don’t believe that a course of study that offers no opportunity for face-to-face interaction—faculty  to student and student to student—is a substitute for the give-and-take that’s a critical component of an MBA program. Nor does it allow students to tailor their program to their own needs and interests. That passive, nonpersonal approach strikes me as more likely to turn out followers than leaders.

And MBA programs should be in the business of training leaders.

Can a fully asynchronous online-only MBA degree offer the same quality educational experience as an immersive, on-campus or hybrid MBA that allows for intensive interaction between students and faculty? If not, what is the intrinsic value of an MBA and is the value worth saving? 

Yet, the looming reality is that many potential students cannot take two years away from work to return to university full-time. 

Flexing Our Creativity

At Lehigh University’s College of Business, we have reimagined our MBA in a way that I believe maintains the personal focus that has long been the hallmark of our program, while offering options that remove some of the obstacles that might discourage talented students from applying.

Our 1-MBA program is designed for professionals who wish to either pivot their careers toward a business-related area, which may not be in their previous field of employment, or accelerate their career growth within their chosen field. It is a one-year, rigorous curriculum that includes the functional areas of business and embraces the shared value model that recognizes various stakeholders in today’s high-tech, modern societies.

Moving to a one-year, fulltime cohort model on campus opens the door for students who might not be able to afford the time away from work and/or cost that a two-year program demands.

And if taking a full year away from work is still too much, Lehigh offers a part-time FLEX MBA program—an MBA for active professionals looking to enhance their skills in a robust, personalized format. 

Through our unique, synchronous ClassroomLIVE platform, students can choose whether to participate on any given day either on campus or online, depending what their schedule allows. As I like to say: If you can get yourself in front of a computer at class time, you are in the classroom. This program preserves the important human interaction component by allowing students to participate fully in real-time online if they can’t make it to campus for class. So students working on a major project that requires long hours or a job that includes travelling for assignments can join the class online when they need to. Or, if you choose, you can attend remotely for the entire program by simply logging on. 

They can take part in the discussions and hear the valuable perspectives of their fellow students and professors the same as if they were physically sitting in the classroom on campus. By offering an unparalleled level of flexibility, both in terms of pace (allowing students to tailor the program so they can move at their own pace) and location (on campus or online), Lehigh’s FLEX MBA creates a convenient learning environment that makes the MBA more accessible to more students, without sacrificing the educational experience.

And since we’re not slashing the educational experience, we don’t slash the cost of the program. We work hard to make our MBA as affordable as we can, but the fact is that a personal, immersive educational experience isn’t a commodity. It’s a commitment—both on the part of the institution and the students.

Rethinking the MBA doesn’t mean competing on price. It means keeping our commitment to the MBA as the gold standard of educational excellence for talented students who want to lead, not follow. And it means constantly evaluating how we deliver that educational experience, looking for innovative ways to increase access for students who seek the opportunity to challenge themselves to meet that high standard.

Above all, I believe it is our obligation to make sure that the beating heart of the MBA—the human interaction among faculty and students—remains strong for generations to come.

Tags: MBA
Georgette C. Phillips

Georgette Chapman Phillips

Georgette Chapman Phillips, J.D., is the Kevin L. and Lisa A. Clayton Dean of the College of Business; and Professor in Finance and Africana Studies.