Traditional Higher Education Is Losing Relevance. Here’s What’s Replacing It

Should you go to graduate school? If so, why? If not, what are your alternatives? Millions of young adults across the globe—and their parents and mentors—find themselves asking these questions every year.

Earlier this month, I explored how exponential technologies are rising to meet the needs of the rapidly changing workforce.

In this blog, I’ll dive into a highly effective way to build the business acumen and skills needed to make the most significant impact in these exponential times.

To start, let’s dive into the value of graduate school versus apprenticeship—especially during this time of extraordinarily rapid growth, and the micro-diversification of careers.

The True Value of an MBA

All graduate schools are not created equal.

For complex technical trades like medicine, engineering, and law, formal graduate-level training provides a critical foundation for safe, ethical practice (until these trades are fully augmented by artificial intelligence and automation…).

For the purposes of today’s blog, let’s focus on the value of a Master in Business Administration (MBA) degree, compared to acquiring your business acumen through various forms of apprenticeship.

The Waning of Business Degrees

Ironically, business schools are facing a tough business problem. The rapid rate of technological change, a booming job market, and the digitization of education are chipping away at the traditional graduate-level business program.

The data speaks for itself.

The Decline of Graduate School Admissions

Enrollment in two-year, full-time MBA programs in the US fell by more than one-third from 2010 to 2016.

While in previous years, top business schools (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton) were safe from the decrease in applications, this year, they also felt the waning interest in MBA programs.

  • Harvard Business School: 4.5 percent decrease in applications, the school’s biggest drop since 2005.
  • Wharton: 6.7 percent decrease in applications.
  • Stanford Graduate School: 4.6 percent decrease in applications.

Another signal of change began unfolding over the past week. You may have read news headlines about an emerging college admissions scam, which implicates highly selective US universities, sports coaches, parents, and students in a conspiracy to game the undergraduate admissions process.

Already, students are filing multibillion-dollar civil lawsuits arguing that the scheme has devalued their degrees or denied them a fair admissions opportunity.

MBA Graduates in the Workforce

To meet today’s business needs, startups and massive companies alike are increasingly hiring technologists, developers, and engineers in place of the MBA graduates they may have preferentially hired in the past.

While 85 percent of US employers expect to hire MBA graduates this year (a decrease from 91 percent in 2017), 52 percent of employers worldwide expect to hire graduates with a master’s in data analytics (an increase from 35 percent last year).

We’re also seeing the waning of MBA degree holders at the CEO level.

For decades, an MBA was the hallmark of upward mobility towards the C-suite of top companies.

But as exponential technologies permeate not only products but every part of the supply chain—from manufacturing and shipping to sales, marketing and customer service—that trend is changing by necessity.

Looking at the Harvard Business Review’s Top 100 CEOs in 2018 list, more CEOs on the list held engineering degrees than MBAs (34 held engineering degrees, while 32 held MBAs).

There’s much more to leading innovative companies than an advanced business degree.

How Are Schools Responding?

With disruption to the advanced business education system already here, some business schools are applying notes from their own innovation classes to brace for change.

Over the past half-decade, we’ve seen schools with smaller MBA programs shut their doors in favor of advanced degrees with more specialization. This directly responds to market demand for skills in data science, supply chain, and manufacturing.

Some degrees resemble the precise skills training of technical trades. Others are very much in line with the apprenticeship models we’ll explore next.

Regardless, this new specialization strategy is working and attracting more new students. Over the past decade (2006 to 2016), enrollment in specialized graduate business programs doubled.

Higher education is also seeing a preference shift toward for-profit trade schools, like coding boot camps. This shift is one of several forces pushing universities to adopt skill-specific advanced degrees.

But some schools are slow to adapt, raising the question: how and when will these legacy programs be disrupted? A survey of over 170 business school deans around the world showed that many programs are operating at a loss.

But if these schools are world-class business institutions, as advertised, why do they keep the doors open even while they lose money? The surveyed deans revealed an important insight: they keep the degree program open because of the program’s prestige.

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