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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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
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 [email protected].