Business is Our Classroom

The Carlson School shares five trends that will shape business education well into the future.
Business is Our Classroom
At the Carlson School, we are about to celebrate our 100th anniversary. During that first century, our path to maintaining a successful business program was relatively clear: We would match high-quality students with high-quality faculty and house them in a high-quality facility. Everybody agreed that the higher the quality of these three components, the more successful the program.

Over the next 100 years, the formula will be more complex. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, students are demanding learning experiences that are more hands-on, customized, varied, and in-depth. In fact, the term “learning experience” has taken on a whole new meaning. Today’s students are active participants who learn by doing; they want to develop deep understanding by working on real-life, high-impact projects. To make this possible, business schools have to be more flexible. We have to reach out across disciplines and sectors to coalesce industry with academia. We have to think of business as our classroom.

I see five trends now affecting the Carlson School, and I expect these trends will shape business education well into the future:

Students have more experience— and higher expectations. Freshmen are coming into four-year business schools with a good idea of where they want their careers to lead. Even as high schoolers, many have been exposed to entrepreneurial opportunities. And many of them decide on their majors long before their junior or senior years. To accommodate this new generation of learners, many business schools have started to position core courses earlier in the curriculum and to expose students to the business world from the get-go.

Businesses want to hire students who can think critically and exercise good judgment. Business schools must impart not only excellent analytical skills, but also soft skills in areas such as reflection, introspection, presentation, and teamwork. Recruiters and employers are not looking for order takers. They want employees who have the knowledge, drive, and confidence to be able to deliver when they’re facing “leadership moments.” They want new hires who can step up to take a project forward or who are comfortable working on complex problems in diverse global teams and ambiguous environments. Students only develop skills in critical thinking, analytics, team building, and cultural sensitivity through courses that provide hands-on experience or live cases that have real deliverables.

Students are hungry for more input in terms of career preparation and support. On the one hand, they are demanding more individualized curricular and extracurricular opportunities for leadership development, experiential learning, and international exposure. On the other, they’re looking for more structured career guidance and support. In the past, business career centers were largely geared toward MBA programs and standardized career paths. But today, schools must offer tailored career advising and support at all levels, often in close conjunction with regular student advising.

Graduate students require programs with value-added components. To stay relevant today, the traditional two-year MBA must provide customization, convenience, and truly career-enhancing experiences. One reason is that, in many industries, employers want new hires who have backgrounds and knowledge in their particular fields. Another reason is that many students are looking for “bespoke” experiences, so they want to create their own dual degrees and custom specializations. Consequently, business schools must reach out across disciplinary boundaries to offer deeper material in fields such as agriculture, tech, energy, healthcare, and financial services.

Students want business programs with convenient options in terms of timing and delivery. There has been explosive growth in the number of programs offering online courses, compressed formats, and on-demand continuous education, and these options are becoming critical differentiators in graduate business education. In addition, many students are seeking degrees that are more specific than an MBA and that can be earned earlier in their careers. For instance, both students and employers have shown strong interest in one-year “pre-experience” MS programs in areas such as business analytics, finance, and supply chain management. We expect to see this trend continue.

Trends such as these guarantee that, on both the graduate and undergraduate levels, business education will remain highly dynamic for years to come. Schools hoping to preserve their mantle of quality will have to become much better at collaborating with business partners and with other academic disciplines if they are to deliver the graduates that tomorrow’s business needs.
Srilata Zaheer is Dean and Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Global Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis.