The Integrated Program Portfolio

How Smeal College reinvigorated its professional graduate programs, using a course-sharing strategy to increase enrollments and revenues.

Solving for X: The Integrated Program Portfolio

THE CHALLENGE: In 2014, Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in University Park was facing a situation that has become all too common at schools across the country: State support was declining, and our university board of trustees did not want to increase tuition. That meant the college would need to create new sources of funding, at a time when our existing professional master’s programs had become less and less responsive to the market over time. In fact, our college hadn’t launched a new master’s program in more than ten years. Therefore, it was no surprise that we offered the fewest professional master’s programs and graduate certificates of any of the 14 universities that make up what’s known in the U.S. as the Big 10 Conference. To complicate matters further, our internal culture was very traditional and unaccustomed to dramatic change.

However, in the last five years, Smeal College has undergone one of the largest transformations in its history. Through a concerted effort, we have created a robust and integrated portfolio of resident master’s programs, online master’s programs, and online graduate certificates. We’ve done so by creating more synergy across our online and resident programs and reinventing the culture of our college.

THE CONTEXT: When I became associate dean for professional graduate programs at the Smeal College in August 2014, dean Charles Whiteman charged me with overhauling its professional graduate programs. At that time, the college’s existing resident MBA and executive MBA were losing money. Its resident master of accounting and online master’s degree in supply chain management were generating positive net revenue, but both were experiencing plateauing or declining enrollments. We did not offer an online MBA; instead, Penn State’s online MBA was delivered across three campus locations with no leadership from Smeal College.

All of these programs operated in silos with no integration or course sharing. Overhauling our graduate programs would require a deliberate effort, both to raise community awareness of the problem and to convince faculty of the need for change.

THE APPROACH: In November 2014, I formed a committee consisting of a member from each department in the college. For six months, the committee met once every three weeks to discuss Smeal’s position in the market for professional graduate education. None of the committee members, mostly mid-career faculty, had a comprehensive understanding of current market conditions, so they turned to consultants to provide external market data.

The committee members immersed themselves in the market, with each meeting sparking additional questions that required additional data and research. At the end, one member remarked that this process was the most meaningful experience that he had been involved with during his time at the college.

In May 2015, the committee members delivered the following initial recommendations:

Redesign the resident MBA program. In the most controversial of its recommendations, the committee proposed converting the structure of the two-year on-campus MBA program from two sections of approximately 35 students each to one section of 60 students. The teaching capacity of that second section could then be used to build and launch a one-year resident master of management and organizational leadership (MOL) program. which would serve as a fifth-year resident master’s program for undergraduates in STEM disciplines.

We knew faculty would need to adjust to the new class sizes, but we viewed this restructuring as a way to return our teaching assignments back to full strength. In the past, our two-year MBA had enrolled two sections of as many as 60 students each, but class sizes had grown smaller over time. Once we launched the MOL program, our faculty had to adjust to teaching larger classes of less experienced students.

Redesign the executive MBA. This recommendation involved shortening the EMBA from two years to 18 months and making it more flexible with the addition of optional online graduate certificates. EMBA students have up to three years to complete one graduate certificate of their choice as part of their tuition. Some faculty on the redesign committee were concerned that few EMBAs would pursue online graduate certificates; others worried that the graduate certificates might “cheapen” the perception of the degree. However, market data suggested that today’s EMBA students want opportunities to specialize in a variety of subject areas. Online certificates provided an economical way to offer a wide range of specializations to a relatively small student population— approximately 40 total students per year enroll in the program.

Today, prospective and current EMBA students report that having the options to pursue online graduate certificates and apply certificates toward second master’s degrees are two of the most attractive features of the program.

Redesign the existing online MBA and shift its administration to the Smeal College of Business. While the online MBA program’s leadership had been a topic of discussion for years, administrators on the campuses that led the program did not want to transfer its oversight to Smeal. However, with only about 110 students enrolling each year, the old version of the Penn State online MBA program (iMBA) had relatively small (and declining) enrollments. Many believed that a dramatic program change was needed if Penn State was to compete effectively in the extremely competitive online MBA market. In 2015, we brought in a consultant, who agreed that the Smeal College of Business should assume leadership for the online program.

Next, we engaged a research firm to conduct a comprehensive market study of the online MBA market and make recommendations for the program’s redesign. The old version of the iMBA was a rigid, cohort-based program with no electives and multiple required residencies; over time, this model appealed to a smaller and smaller portion of the overall market. The market study firm recommended that a redesigned iMBA program eliminate cohorts, feature only one residency at the start of the program, and incorporate a variety of elective concentrations.

Create new non-MBA graduate programs. These included an online master of corporate innovation and entrepreneurship and three online graduate certificates in business analytics, marketing analytics, and corporate innovation and entrepreneurship. Market studies guided the design of these graduate programs as well.

Make the committee an ongoing part of the college. Our Professional Graduate Education Committee, which has evolved to include program directors from the resident and online graduate programs, has become instrumental for guiding future programmatic change at the school.

The dean and I held ongoing discussions about these recommendations with senior faculty through August 2015. It was equally important for us to help alumni and advisory board members understand the business case for an integrated portfolio, so that they could help us communicate the strategic competitive need for this change.

In the end, all but one faculty member supported the changes. As a next step, we rebranded our MBA program office as the Professional Graduate Programs office and restructured its operations to provide shared services to all professional graduate programs. The new office, as well as the implementation of a new customer relationship management system, provided the infrastructure we needed to eliminate silos, manage program growth, coordinate course-sharing among different programs, achieve greater efficiencies, and deliver more effective services using a shared services model.

BENEFITS OF COURSE SHARING

As associate dean, I have worked to ensure that we maximize curricular innovation, course sharing and reuse, and synergies across our program portfolio. By integrating our programs’ operation at all levels, we have created a shared program architecture that provides students with maximum flexibility. (See “Our Programs Before and After” below.) And by sharing courses between the programs, our new portfolio offers students a cost-effective way to layer multiple online graduate certificates or obtain multiple resident and online master’s degrees. Moreover, the course-sharing model has helped the college greatly reduce the cost of program startup and faculty staffing, accelerate program launch timelines, and limit program risk. In one case, we launched a new master’s program with the creation of just one new course.

 

Our Programs Before

In 2014, the Smeal College’s original portfolio of programs operated in silos, with no common courses, as shown above.

 

 

Course sharing is achieved primarily through our online graduate certificate programs, which can be “stacked” toward a master’s degree. Available as optional electives in all master’s programs, our graduate certificate courses allow students to sample a program before committing to the master’s degree. Our resident or online master’s students typically obtain at least one online graduate certificate as part of the degree requirements; they then usually can apply two or three shared courses toward a second master’s degree if desired.

For example, students can apply the credits earned for an online supply chain management graduate certificate toward the core requirements of the supply chain management online master’s program; from there, they also could apply three of the courses in the certificate program toward the elective credits needed for the online MBA. Additionally, some graduate certificates have courses in common, so that students need fewer courses to earn multiple graduate certificates. Many of our students take more than one professional master’s degree and earn one or more graduate certificates along the way. Approximately 25 percent of our professional master’s students have expressed interest in pursuing a second (or, in a few cases, a third) master’s degree.

 

Our Programs After

Today, the college’s new portfolio includes a more expansive selection of program offerings. Connections across programs allow students to stack commonly delivered courses toward new credentials. This course-sharing model encourages lifelong learning and has led to higher graduate enrollments.

 

 

Our certificate courses also have helped us strengthen our partnerships with nonbusiness departments, which use courses in our Business Management Foundations graduate certificate program to provide their students with foundational business education. The college co-mingles students from different nonbusiness master’s programs until demand grows to warrant a dedicated section for a particular department.

SCALING THE MODEL

Our sharing model has substantially increased demand for online courses. For that reason, we needed a way to provide high-touch course support that enabled the growth of our online courses while ensuring a high-quality learning experience for our students. To enable us to scale up effectively, while also guiding students as they craft programs of study, we have started relying on Teaching Support Specialists (TSS).

More than 95 percent of our TSSs are graduates of one of our professional master’s programs, and they have more than ten years of work experience in relevant fields. These professionals, who support our courses while working fulltime for companies all over the world, typically meet with the students through chat sessions and live Zoom sessions. On average, they receive US$4,000 for approximately ten hours of course support per week. Their contributions most often involve the management of discussion boards, facilitation of student teams, and guest lecturing. We currently employ 25 TSSs and will likely double this number over the next five years.

When we put out the initial call for TSSs, a flood of well-qualified professionals applied from all over the globe. We have developed training for the TSSs and faculty that utilize this model, as well as a community for best practice sharing and ongoing learning, mentoring, and development.

Such an integrated portfolio offers more choices to students, but it’s also more complex to staff and manage. For this reason, we have adopted other innovative staffing solutions until enrollments increase enough to justify hiring additional faculty. These solutions include offering overload pay, using retirees and adjuncts, and employing faculty from other colleges or campuses. In addition, we created a new position called the director for excellence in teaching and learning. This person works with all aspects of the student and faculty experience in our professional graduate programs; initially, she focused primarily on developing our online programs and building the infrastructure to support and grow the TSS model.

LESSONS LEARNED

Transforming our graduate programs wasn’t easy, but a number of steps have proven critical to our success:

Providing the right resources. Our faculty needed developmental resources and a community where they can share experiences, discuss best practices, and derive energy from innovators. The director for excellence in teaching and learning is the focal point for this work, which includes developing training and mentoring programs, sharing best practices, and developing a learning analytics program to provide data that guides our improvement efforts.

Rewarding the innovators. We recognized the importance of rewarding and promoting those who supported the school’s new direction. At the same time, we didn’t try to fit square pegs into round holes. Having the right people in the right roles was critical for success.

Winning over university leadership. University administrators often tend to prioritize standardization and conformity over innovation. To navigate university politics and break away from bureaucracies that might impede its agility and innovation, our college:

  • Had appropriate startup funding on hand. We kept in mind that it typically takes about three years for new programs to become profitable.
  • Had an exit strategy in place to shut down any program that does not meet certain objectives within three years of launch.
  • Was transparent about how both the university and the business school will benefit financially from making this change.
  • Was backed by the unwavering support of the dean.
  • Had a project leader ready to embrace calculated risks, adapt to changing conditions, solve problems, influence others, and multitask on several major initiatives. Over many required meetings, discussions, and negotiations, the project leader must be ready to stand alone at first, stand firm if the business case is solid, and stand up to those who want to keep the status quo.

WHAT’S NEXT:

Our online MBA hit its year-four revenue targets in year two, enrolling nearly double the number of students than the previous version of the program. The executive MBA and the single-section resident MBA program have moved up in the rankings. The MOL program, one of our most successful, launched with a class of 32, and it enrolled 54 in fall 2019.

In their first years, the online master of corporate innovation and entrepreneurship enrolled more than 60 students; and the associated graduate certificate, more than 100. Our business analytics and marketing analytics graduate certificate programs enrolled 200 students and 70 students, respectively. We have expanded the marketing analytics certificate into an online master’s program, and we’re considering the launch of a hybrid executive doctorate of business administration.

Overall, we project a tenfold increase in enrollments, from about 300 students in 2014 to more than 3,000 by 2024. We expect gross annual revenue to increase from about $4 million to $40 million.

Our course sharing model has enabled us to develop cross-portfolio optional experiential learning components, such as global immersions, leadership immersions, and campus networking and tailgate events. Additionally, all graduates of our master’s programs will have access to our Lifelong Learning Library of content modules from our online programs.

In so many ways, our culture is becoming more entrepreneurial and accepting of change. We understand that our portfolio of professional graduate programs will continue to evolve. But that’s why its creation has been such an exciting change for our school.

Brian Cameron is associate dean for professional graduate programs at the Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in State College.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December print issue. lease send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

Advertise With BizEd