Tailor-Made Degrees: Customized Corporate Education
The popular notion of a new graduate entering
"the real world" points to the fact that we commonly view academia and the
corporate environment as two disparate, almost polarized communities. The
perception may be that universities focus on theory while businesses concentrate
on practice. And to combine the two—to influence academic curriculum on behalf
of corporate needs—has traditionally been frowned upon as a corruption of pure
This is not to say that higher education
has ignored the corporate community. Colleges and universities have long offered
corporate training programs and customized courses. However, corporate offerings
and traditional degree programs have fallen into two distinct categories,
usually considered to be very separate: the graduate degree program, typically
thought of as the more rigorous education experience designed exclusively by
academics, and the executive education program, a shorter-term, not-for-credit
alternative intended to serve the corporation’s needs.
Now, due in large part to the maturing
nature and growing acceptance of distance learning, the wall that once stood
between business and academia is beginning to crumble. Over the past few years,
we’ve begun to see a blending of executive education and graduate degree
programs. The result is a new model for professional education: the
corporate-customized graduate degree program.
The Babson College
In 2000, Babson College opened the
doors of Babson Interactive, a school dedicated to applying e-learning to innovative management
education programs. The goal was to create an e-learning/faceto- face hybrid that is
both responsive to the needs of businesses and culminates
in a degree from an established brick-andmortar university.
When I was first hired by Babson College,
I held the titles of dean of the Babson School of Executive Education and dean
of its Graduate School of Business. My responsibilities included overseeing
Babson’s MBA programs and executive education courses at the same time. As I
stepped into the position of CEO of Babson Interactive, I relinquished my role
as dean of the Graduate School but retained my title and responsibilities as
dean of Executive Education. It was clear from the start that e-learning offered
high potential for an entirely new type of executive education, and that Babson
Interactive was the place where we would explore the possibilities.
Babson had been watching the development
of e-learning from the sidelines for quite some time before opening Babson
Interactive. At first we were, frankly, not very interested. For the most part,
the technologies appeared underdeveloped and unproven. We had great concern that
the initial technology was not robust enough to provide the kind of insight and
judgment building that we felt a good graduate program should offer.
In the past few years, however, we’ve
seen the technology improve and have observed other institutions implement very
successful e-learning programs. I now believe that a blended degree program—one
that incorporates both elearning and face-to-face instruction— offers an
education experience that can, in fact, be superior to the traditional classroom
experience. The key is in the proper balancing of these two learning modes.
A number of corporations have come to
Babson Interactive. In one example, Babson, along with Cenquest, an e-learning
company with expertise in creating online courses, developed a oneof- a-kind
company-customized MBA degree program for Intel Corp. By combining the
foundational and theoretical knowledge included in a Babson graduate degree with
the strategic intent of the company, the program provided Intel with a
completely new employee education option.
The customization of the curriculum took
several forms. The Intel team offered input into the class electives. They also
provided real work projects to be used as examples and incorporated into the
coursework. Through e-learning technology, Intel executives, partners, and even
customers could be included as guest lecturers.
ROI and Student Benefits
Corporations have long viewed companyreimbursed education as a standard employee benefit alongside health
care and bonus programs. U.S. businesses spend $58 billion annually on employee education.
And in a market where there is always fierce competition for
top employees, offering quality education programs is seen as essential to hiring
and retaining the best and brightest.
Unfortunately, the return-on-investment
for company-reimbursed degree programs has been less than easy to quantify.
Corporations have had little influence over the schools being attended, much
less the programs being offered and the curriculum being taught. Aside from
reimbursement contingencies based on keeping a certain grade point average,
businesses have had limited input into the nature of their employee’s for-credit
education experience. The programs are typically funded more upon faith and hope
then on real data showing that employees will learn skills that will increase
their overall value to the company.
Perhaps a larger irony to these programs
is that while they are seen as a necessary tool for hiring and retaining
employees, they often have an opposite effect. It is not unusual for a company
to pay for an employee’s graduate education only to have that employee leave
once the degree is obtained. In such cases, the reimbursement program often
becomes a company-sponsored training ground for its competition.
Since the programs at Babson Interactive
are designed to increase an employee’s value to the company, chances are far
better that graduates will continue their careers at the company once their
degree is completed. And since employees work and study with other employees
from various corporate locations, managers see the learning experience as
providing a rare opportunity to build valuable employee relationships across
In the final analysis, there is a real
learning curve involved in maximizing both the instructional and business models
for this type of program. Still, it is clear that corporate education is heading
in a new direction. Companies like Intel are looking to this new corporate
education model to provide higher quality assurances and overall increased
value. By combining a traditional graduate degree curriculum with content
tailored to the needs of a company, customized degree programs offer
unprecedented benefits to both the employee and employer and stand to ultimately
redefine the relationship between academia and the "real