Pursuing a career in business has traditionally gone hand-in-hand with a college degree. And, for those pursing a leadership role, an executive education is almost always a requirement. But times have changed and so have the requirements for success in business. While there are a variety of contributing factors, advancements in technology, a new workforce generation and the COVID pandemic take center stage. These changes have left aspiring entrepreneurs questioning traditional pathways to success like never before. With millions being made by middle schoolers from online platforms, such as YouTube and TikTok, the prevailing question among those considering an executive education is, “What is my return on investment?”
“Any field gives you credibility as it relates to the skills and competencies associated with the duties and responsibilities of that particular position,” said Rick Benbow, regional vice president for Western Governor’s University (WGU) of the Arizona, California and Nevada areas. “Technology has kind of debunked the need for education with Instagram and social media, but everybody’s not a social media star or personality. If you are in a traditional business and there’s a clear career trajectory in which a Master’s in Business Administration will benefit you, it certainly helps you stand apart and differentiates you from competition in that field or that particular career track. There is value if you are in the business environment.”
As business changes on both a local and global scale, professionals are seeking to differentiate and adapt. “There’s so much change going on in the economy and in industries,” said Greg Mosier, dean of the College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). “People are trying to figure out what has happened post pandemic, with return-to-work policies and all these things. What you can get by pursuing either higher degrees or the non-credit programming for certificates, is an opportunity to respond in a really robust way to what those changing norms are.”
Although not a guarantee for success, obtaining an executive education undoubtedly gives professionals a leg up compared to the competition. “I think that education, and especially executive education is a critical component of a sound business strategy,” said Dr. Mark Vitale, business-to-business client solutions architect at the University of Phoenix. “I think it’s a point of strategic differentiation for organizations. And in a state like Nevada where so many of your key sectors or industries are undergoing significant transformation, partly as a relation to the pandemic and partly just as a relation to everything that’s going on in the world, I can’t stress it enough.”
Advancements in technology are also impacting professionals by redefining the way business is done. As more business operations are becoming automated, people in business are looking for ways to increase their company’s value.
“Data does suggest that there is a demand for executive degrees like MBAs, that’s pretty strong,” said MaryBeth Sewald, president and CEO of the Vegas Chamber. “And part of that is due to the ‘Great Resignation’, the ‘Great Retirement’ and things like that. We are seeing a lot of those more seasoned workers moving on to another part of their life. And then also we’re seeing a lot more technology fused into business operations. Executives who understand how to navigate the data and artificial intelligence into their operations are really in high demand. I would say that demand for executive MBAs is pretty strong.”
There are a variety of factors that professionals consider when it comes to pursuing an executive education. Perhaps the greatest is the rising cost of tuition. According to the MBA Guide, a website focused on data related to MBAs, “of all MBA programs offered in Nevada, the average cost for instate tuition and fees is $18,369 a year. The average cost for in-state tuition and fees for an online MBA program is $28,263 a year.”
Weighing the cost of pursuing these degrees and comparing them to the wage increase they can expect is paramount for individuals determining their value. But for those at the beginning of their educational pursuits, the anticipated costs of even a bachelor’s degree have many abandoning the pursuit of formal education altogether.
“The younger generations are starting to question the value of higher education, maybe [because of] the debt and the rising cost of tuition associated with that pathway,” said Benbow. “They’re starting to look at alternatives, and certainly the skills that trades offer may be a quicker opportunity to get a return on investment given the number of trade jobs that exist. I think the prevailing thought amongst that demographic is that the trades offer a quicker return on investment and possibly a high paying career without the debt.”
Another significant consideration for professionals is program flexibility in the form of compact course work. “We need to meet people where they are,” said Dr. Anjala Krishen, director of MBA programs and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).
“If people are in an executive position in a company and they need or want a degree, that’s why we’re calling it executive,” Krishen said. “They’re already in an executive position and they’re not going to be able to do week on end or months on end to get a course finished. They need to compact it. They’re already in these jobs. These executives need a different kind of modality. They need that flexibility.”
One way that academic organizations have tried to meet the need for flexibility is by offering weekend and evening classes, hybrid courses and even fully online programs.
“We have an online executive MBA program,” said Mosier. “And because it’s completely online and a lot of it is what we call asynchronous, where you don’t necessarily have to be on the Internet at the same time that all the students are. You can do things on your own time. You could be at home and wait until you’ve had dinner and you got the kids to bed and then you can work on your coursework and that’s been incredibly popular. We’ve really been able to do quite well with that program because it serves that market where people are not able to just drop out of what they’re doing career wise.
In the Classroom
For tenured professionals, the push for pursuing an executive education oftentimes lacks appeal. “I’m not saying that experience doesn’t matter because it absolutely does, but education is valuable and we can’t fabricate that,” said Krishen. “We haven’t figured out how to sleep on a book and learn. We haven’t figured out how to fabricate the environment of a professor talking to students and teaching us something. It’s not the same thing as watching a Netflix movie. We haven’t fabricated the classroom. We can’t do that either. The kind of exchange that happens in MBA coursework is different. Students learn from each other. They don’t just learn from the professor.”
This value on in class education seems to clash with the demand for remote learning, especially in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. “At the end of the day, we like the in-person experience because it contributes so much to socialization and civility and team building and all those kinds of things,” said Mosier. “It’s not like I’m sitting around hoping that everything goes online because I think there’s too much value in [classroom education]. We have to have these resident experiences where people are together. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore this huge segment of the population that needs these alternative paradigms on how we deliver educational programming and so it helped us realize how we can better serve the community in the state by how we deliver our programs.”
A Shifting Perspective
In a changing world impacted by a global pandemic and current labor crisis, the workforce is undergoing a significant shift in perspective regarding education. “Research reveals that the traditional route or pathway to higher education was you graduate high school, go to college, [and then] you get a job,” said Benbow. “The emerging trend that they’re starting to see in some of the survey respondents is that you graduate high school, get a job [and then you] go to college. I think the pandemic may have accelerated this new model. And for those students who have to work immediately after high school, the return on investment is a lot greater by seeking a trade and doing some apprenticeship work where they earn and learn, or even taking that opportunity to earn a more traditional degree and a bachelor’s degree.”
This shift in perspective is resulting in some individuals forgoing a formal education altogether in favor of meeting the demand for trade experts. “There is a lot of demand for quality employees who have a certificate and who can do blue collar jobs,” said Sewald. “You can make a lot of money as a plumber or an electrician. It isn’t just those skillful executives who are in high demand. We need individuals like computer programmers, engineers, business managers and healthcare workers, especially. A lot of those jobs don’t even require a four-year degree, just a high-level certificate.”
For professionals who experienced fallout from the pandemic, seeking a trade has become a matter of necessity. “There is an urgency among a lot of folks right now, especially anyone who was displaced during the pandemic,” said Sewald. “They need a quicker fix. And getting those high-level certificates, while they’re challenging and they do require a lot of commitment and work and so forth, those are faster to acquire and to achieve and still provide amazing opportunities with skill sets that provide high paid jobs. I think the shift has been more pronounced because of the pandemic than perhaps prior to that.”
As professionals weigh the value of executive education compared to trade work, many institutions are integrating credentialing into their program to provide immediate gains for students.
“I think employees, workers and students are looking for expedited ways to attain credentials and skills in certain demand fields,” said Benbow. “A number of traditional brick and mortar institutions are now creating specific camps, classes or courses around certificates. Whether it’s executive education, digital marketing, leadership, or data analytics, I think technology has absolutely impacted the need to have skills and quickly attain those skills. The business world is constantly changing, and technology is forcing individuals to have those certain skills. I think at a certain level, you see an increase in demand for quick certificates and skill attainment.”
The modern world has changed the way success in business is defined and a traditional pathway of pursuing higher education is no longer a guarantee for a high paying job. “Whether or not an MBA is important is really going to be dependent on a specific industry and its trajectory,” said Vitale. “But in general, an MBA is a very versatile degree. It is an introduction and a portal of discovery for how to manage and lead a business.”
While education is undoubtedly a benefit in business, the return on investment for the individual isn’t always so easy to answer. But one thing is certain, executive education differentiates the worker and in today’s professional environment, it may yet make all the difference.
“All higher education degrees and graduate degrees are differentiators,” said Krishen. “They put people into a different market. Once you get that degree, you experience different offers. You become more valuable on many levels and that’s because not that many people have those degrees.”