Business Schools Deliver Lifelong Education

Today’s students expect to pursue learning continuously over the course of their careers. How can business schools be the go-to source for these lifetime learners?
Business Schools Deliver Lifelong Education

“LEARNING IS A JOURNEY, not a destination.” By making that observation, Wendy Loretto, the dean of the University of Edinburgh Business School in Scotland, voices an idea that is increasingly taking hold in the higher education community. It’s not enough for individuals to receive one comprehensive infusion of education early in their careers and expect it to serve them for the rest of their lives. In today’s complex, quick­ly changing business environment, they will constantly need to add new skills—and many will want to return to business school over and over to acquire that additional education.

There are many reasons today’s learners will need to spend a lifetime seeking new knowledge. First, says Loretto, they’re working later in life. Second, they’re more likely to switch ca­reers, either because they choose to in order to fulfill their own goals or because they’re forced to by the changing economy. Finally, many individuals are taking time out of work to raise children or care for elderly relatives. All of these factors are combining to create “a real imperative for people to develop new skills and return to learning at multiple points to remain agile in their professional lives,” Loretto says.

Another reason applies specifically to business students, says Hugh Courtney, dean of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. “Almost by definition, any student who received an MBA at any time in history didn’t get the optimal degree for himself or herself,” he says. Rather, students undoubtedly took courses that weren’t relevant to their specific goals at that specific time—or that were obsolete by the time they needed them in the workplace.

“Successful businesspeople will need more business education than they ever have, and they’ll be retooling throughout their careers,” says Courtney. “The best way for schools to give them that education is to unbundle degrees and think about how to give students exactly what they need, when they need it, in the formats that work best for them.”

But providing such targeted, unbundled, just-in-time education isn’t a simple proposition. Business schools must decide what kinds of programs to offer, in what formats, through what delivery mechanisms. Are they serving alumni who want to brush up their skills on an as-needed basis? Are they offering programs in collaboration with corporate partners who want to train hand-picked groups of employees? Are they looking ahead to a massive disaggregation of education, in which fewer students pursue traditional four-year and graduate degrees in favor of accumulating “chunks” of education over their entire careers?

The answer seems to be “all of the above—and then some.” We talked with representatives of five schools that have made deep investments in lifelong learning to discover what programs they’re offering and what markets they’re targeting. They identified four reasons it is essential for today’s business schools to offer lifelong learning, then discussed what they see for such programs in the years ahead. It turns out that the future of lifelong education might very well mirror the future of the university, which means it’s even more important for schools to think now about the programs they might put in place in the coming years.

In America, 73 PERCENT of adults consider themselves lifelong learners, according to the Pew Research Center. That includes 58 PERCENT who read how-to publications, 30 PERCENT who attend conventions related to their personal interests, and 16 PERCENT who take online courses.


Ongoing educational programs allow schools to offer alumni a critical service that keeps them engaged with their alma maters. It’s common for schools to invite alumni to audit classes or to offer them discounted tuition. For instance, at the University of Edinburgh, all alumni are part of a university-wide discount scheme of 10 percent off any additional education. In addition, graduates from the business school are eligible for a 20 percent discount on specialized executive programming. Many schools also offer programming options such as free online webinars and knowledge portals designed for alumni. (For examples, see “Back-to-School Specials.”)

Strengthening ties with graduates is a priority at the Haas School of Business at the University of California in Berkeley. “One of the defining principles at Haas is ‘Students Always,’ and a core strategy of the school is to keep alumni connected—to the teaching, to the research, to Berkeley,” says Kevin Wong, the school’s associate director of digital strategy. He works out of the department of alumni relations to develop online programming that is free to alums. “If we were a factory making widgets, we’d be giving those widgets a firmware update. That’s how I started thinking about lifelong learning.”

Today’s students will be considering those ongoing educational opportunities as they decide what college to attend, Wong believes. “Prospective students look at what a school is going to do for them, not just on a reputational side, but on a practical side. ‘How will this school make me a better worker, a better contributor to my organization?’” he asks. “Lifelong learning is the tail end of their investment. Having graduated from a school shouldn’t just be a line on a résumé. It should be a learning opportunity that is ongoing.” Similarly, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia offers a broad array of educational opportunities, most of them designed exclusively for graduates. “Our two primary goals are engaging alumni and showcasing thought leadership,” says Jane Simons, Wharton’s director of alumni relations, Global Forums, and lifelong learning. “I’m sure that, in the future, the topics will change and the delivery platforms will change, but the overall goals will remain.”

Simons and Wong both stress that a school must offer a wide variety of options to attract alumni at every stage of life. At Berkeley-Haas, students who participate represent the full spectrum, from those who have just graduated to those in their late 60s. “It’s a scatter plot—there’s no cluster,” Wong says.

To meet the needs of its entire alumni base, Wharton offers segmented learning options that range from just-in-time courses to immersive learning. “Most recent alums don’t have the time and commitment to engage in immersive learning, so our webinars are popular with them,” says Simons. “At our Global Forums, we see senior executives looking to stay in the loop on the latest research, and recent alums looking for a quick skill refresher.”

It’s important for schools to make sure alumni are familiar with all of the available educational opportunities. For instance, Wharton promotes its offerings through email, the alumni magazine, events, and clubs. At the same time, current students are constantly reminded of the choices they will have once they graduate, which sets up the culture and expectation that they will have a lifetime relationship with the school.

“At the low end of the market, I don’t think there’s going to be any room for universities any more. Basic business education can be replicated very easily. It’s the higher-level integration of theory and practice where universities have the advantage.”



For some schools, ongoing educational programs are a way to connect with alumni—and anyone else who might hunger for knowledge. At Open University in the U.K., for instance, the mission is to create the widest possible access to higher education; thus, the school wants its programming to be available throughout people’s lives and to be consumable in blocks of learning that students can master when they have time.

“Pretty much everything we do is potentially lifelong learning, because our students study part-time alongside other responsibilities,” says Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, associate dean of external engagement at OU Business School. “Some study alongside work, some while taking career breaks, raising children, or serving in the military.”

While Open University charges for executive education and corporate learning offerings, the majority of its not-for-credit courses are free, designed for students who are looking to acquire a particular skill or to study a subject for the love of it. In fact, every time the university develops a paid online course, it commits to taking 5 percent of the content, creating a mini course, and posting it online.

Northeastern University also has been working beyond its alumni base by targeting working professionals who might be interested in the school’s specialty graduate certificates in areas of focused learning. Alumni are a big part of the market and they receive significant tuition reductions, but the school is looking for ways to appeal to a broader audience. For instance, the university has extended the standard alumni discount to family members of undergraduate students.

Explains Courtney, “Siblings might already be at other colleges or be young graduates, and they’re not ready to enroll in a whole new degree program. But they might be interested in taking a few courses, and the same is true of their parents.

The goal is to reach any working professional who might have a need for ongoing education—but not the time to pursue a traditional degree. Says Courtney, “We want to rethink the fundamental business model for professional education.”


D’Amore-McKim’s new certificate programs don’t just make business education available to a wide base of students—they’re credit-bearing courses that “offer entry points for students into graduate programs,” says Courtney. Each certificate program is a four- or five-course bundle on topics such as corporate finance, technological entrepreneurship, and leadership and human capital. Drawn from courses already offered in the school’s MBA and MS programs, these bundles take students about halfway to an MS degree or one-fourth of the way to an MBA.

Open University also is expanding its options of credentialed learning, which come with nominal fees and result in proof of mastery. The most basic proof might be a certificate of completion, which summarizes the course and states that the student has engaged in a majority of the activities; a more complex proof might be a badge, which indicates that a student has passed assessments within the course (usually multiple-choice quizzes). While these don’t lead to OU credit, says Fenton-O’Creevy, they do result in something that students can show to employers or professional associations as proof of continued learning.

However, in 2016, OU began experimenting with providing assessment—and credit—for its MOOCs. For instance, at the undergraduate level, if students earn certificates of completion in six MOOCs, they can add a “wraparound” university course that provides some additional learning as well as a series of assessments; this counts as a credit toward the first year of an undergraduate business degree. Similarly, at the postgraduate level, if students complete and obtain assessments for a suite of three MOOCs, it counts as an elective in the MBA program.

In a similar vein, the University of Edinburgh recently has launched in-depth MBA option courses, which are designed to help students develop skills in “bite-sized chunks” of education on topics such as digital strategy, innovative management, and design thinking and project management.

“The goal was to give participants the opportunity to try the MBA experience and earn credits toward the full program, without having to make a total commitment,” says Loretto. “The programs are all focused on flexible, relevant, and practical content busy leaders can immediately apply to their own organizational challenges. The courses provide easy access to the latest thinking in short intensive bursts that working professionals can fit in around their existing commitments.”


While ongoing educational programs have great appeal for students, they also provide advantages to the school. Most obviously, they serve to raise the profile of the school, particularly if it is reaching beyond its alumni base.

Says Fenton-O’Creevy of OU, “We track the proportion of people who take MOOCs and participate in self-guided study who then start looking at our paid courses. It’s sufficient that we see that our investment in free learning is doing a good marketing job for us.”

The school also fulfills its open-access-to-education mission by producing radio and television broadcasts that are available to anyone. All the broadcasts end with an invitation to drop by the school’s website, where visitors will find blogs and additional materials that relate to the show, as well as links to both free and fee-based courses. Fenton-O’Creevy estimates that the university has received more than 200,000 requests for print materials related to the broadcasts.

Additionally, lifelong learning programs can boost a school’s revenue, even if they’re offered for free. For instance, OU derives income from the rebroadcast rights to radio and television shows—and from sponsors who underwrite the shows’ production. Similarly, schools can seek out corporate funders for MOOCs and other free educational offerings. At OU, three MOOCs dedicated to personal finance have been sponsored by True Potential, a financial services company in the U.K.


As lifelong learning becomes the expectation for today’s workforce, there will be an abundance of alternative providers, from for-profit organizations to professional associations to corporations. What must business schools do to make sure they capture a significant portion of the market?

For one thing, they will have to stay current with new technology and new ways of delivering education in the formats that students prefer, says Fenton-O’Creevy. That means offering more material online and in flipped-classroom arrangements. “We need to ask if there are better and more interesting ways to teach classes than the ones that developed in medieval Europe,” he says. “Maybe one way to develop students as employees, as citizens, and as individuals who have a critical understanding of the world would be to think radically about different approaches to learning.”

For another thing, schools must maintain strong ties with alums. Wong of Berkeley-Haas believes grads will return to their alma maters because they trust the knowledge that’s being offered and expect it to align with their personal viewpoints. “At least one barrier is removed, because they know the type of people who will be in the classroom with them,” he says.

But schools also have to deliberately play to their strengths. “I think business schools will have to better leverage the intellectual capital advantage they have,” says Courtney of D’Amore-McKim. “A technology company might be able to offer business courses, but can it invest in knowledge creation and dissemination?”

The University of Edinburgh’s Loretto agrees. “Business schools still appeal to people looking to learn in an evidence-based, research-led environment that will expose them to cutting-edge theory,” she says.

But she also thinks universities can stay competitive by partnering with some of those other providers “to design programs that can offer the sharp practitioner-focused tools and real-world experiences professionals can apply to their day-to-day roles.” With that goal in mind, in the past year her school has collaborated with senior corporate leaders to deliver customized executive education programs to companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland; it has worked with FWB Park Brown to deliver a new Executive Women’s Leadership Development Programme; and it has partnered with Scottish Enterprise, E&Y, and the Rubicon Partnership to create an International Leadership Programme for business leaders from Scotland.

Those industry collaborations could be a key component of lifelong learning in the future. Fenton-O’Creevy believes that corporations want to partner with universities in part because universities are involved in dynamic research—and in part because they know a school credit is important to their employees.

“For training managers and HR directors, the challenge isn’t just to put the right training programs in place, but to get employees to take them seriously. One way to do that is by supplying options that provide transferable skills,” says Fenton-O’Creevy. “Paradoxically, corporations feel that the best way to retain employees is to help keep their skills marketable, because employees who feel like they’re getting out of step with the job market feel they better move on before it’s too late.”


The growing popularity of lifelong learning is only one piece of a broad reimagining of the future of education. In that future, students from around the world take courses as they need them, often online, stitching together the equivalents of customized degrees and presenting employers with transcripts of the classes they’ve taken from many providers.

“It’s a little scary,” Courtney admits. Yet it also presents extraordinary opportunities, he adds. “This transformation may enable universities to play the role that they’re best suited for in an information-based society: to really push the envelope.”

Basic business knowledge will become a commodity, Courtney says, and consumers won’t be willing to pay much for it. “At the low end of the market, I don’t think there’s going to be any room for universities anymore,” he says. “Basic business education can be replicated very easily. It’s the higher-level integration of theory and practice where universities have the advantage, and that’s completely consistent with the way we always have—or should have—thought about academic missions. A research university is only great when it is working on the most important issues and disseminating research that shapes both academic thinking and business practice.”

He does believe that universities will need to keep offering immersive degree-based experiences, which really are available nowhere else. But at the same time, they must experiment with more just-in-time, convenient, relatively inexpensive programs that could create lifelong customers who return every time they need to acquire new skills.

In the European Union in 2015, 10.7 PERCENT of people aged 25 to 64 participated in adult education or training, a figure that was 1.4 PERCENT higher than in 2010, according to the website Eurostat. According to the 2009 strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training, the goal is 15 PERCENT.

“We need to play well in both segments—the traditional degree-based, campus-based segment, and the ‘I need what I need and I need it now’ segment,” says Courtney. “I think both sets of products will be on the market for a long time, but the relative importance could shift fairly quickly. We might need to move more aggressively to be prepared for the more unbundled future.” 

Courtney expects the fastest movement to come in programs aimed at working professionals. “That’s the space where I think we have to establish ourselves as unique,” he says. “We need to focus on the more tailored, higher-end opportunities that can happen only if you’re actively engaged in research and practice communities.” 

However business schools tailor their offerings to suit tomorrow’s executives, they’ll need to find ways to attract and engage the lifelong learners of the future. As Loretto says, “The next generation will certainly be more informed, educated, and open to learning than any other before it.”


This article appeared in print in the March/April 2017 issue.