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 academic purpose.

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 Experience

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 company campuses.

Lessons Learned

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 world."

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