Aside from location, which is pretty hard for institutions to change, what are the factors which really influence applicants' decision on which business school to attend? The thing is that the top three factors are relatively unchanging:
1. The quality of the learning and reputation of the school
2. The cost
3. The employment prospects after graduation
That is unlikely to be surprising, but what does surprise us at times is just how hard business schools work to compete on the same things, instead of finding their way to standing out more.
The ranking is an easy one to understand, but unless you are the type of institution that is willing to put "the 23rd best Business School in South East Asia" on your promotional material, ranking really works best as a lever for those near the very top. Some institutions further down the ranking opt for less salubrious accreditations to fill this gap, such as those which look official but can actually be bought and displayed with little to no oversight or quality control*.
Cost is understandably critical, and students want to know that it really is an investment with ROI, which means employment prospects must be substantial (tying into ranking and reputation, and academic quality once again). Flexible payment options, scholarships and sliding scales to broaden access are all critical and play a role in reducing equity gaps.
Employment prospects again come back to the quality and reputation argument. Schools which have a well established alumni network do much better here, as they can showcase positive destinations, even if the diversity of these highlighted case studies is sometimes a little formulaic. What it most often comes down to is the skills you can evidence to an employer, and the relevance of your areas of understanding to issues that are mission-critical to businesses.
So where can Business Schools really hope to stand out? What are the ways to differentiate ourselves in the top decision-making factor in 2022?
An unchanging curriculum with static content is not going to fit well with students who can already see how unstable and fluid the real world is. Dynamic, evolving and adaptive are the keywords to leverage here, as Business Schools build more learner-directed experiences into their offer. The thing is, that when learners have the chance to explore, learn experientially, tinker, fail forward and reflect, they will not only become better lifelong learners, but they will also develop more of the critical skills the world needs.
One cannot build skills simply by imparting knowledge. Business Schools have long come under criticism for failing to adequately provide learners with practical opportunities to take control of their own development. Too much focus on research has sometimes cocooned the institutional psyche in a bubble of academia that responds enquiringly to what has already passed, instead of making meaningful steps towards dealing with what is ahead.
When course content is set in stone, lectured and taught, where is the room for empowerment and agency? It may not be the easiest route, but modernising learning in an institution pays dividends well beyond student satisfaction. Students will not forget the place where they learned to really be themselves and step confidently forward, and that means a greater sense of belonging and community. Organic reputation is built on this, where applicant look less for research credentials and high profile partnerships, and more at the views and reviews of current and former students.
Put learners in the centre, ditch the sage-on-the-stage, support teachers to step into mentoring rather than instruction, and the learning will be far richer. Building your content around the learners might sound like much more work, but it is far more vibrant and energising than delivering the same classes year-on-year as the world carries on regardless.
Technology can also support this transition, with adaptive learning tools a great asset to the flexibility a learner needs to juggle family, work and study commitments, as well as being able to take more control over their own pace. Interdisciplinary learning is another trend in this area which de-siloes thinking and helps learners connect the dots between areas to better face the "wicked" problems of the 21st century.
This focus on modern learning approaches to help develop real-world skills (cognitive and practical) is a huge draw for a generation of learners who can press a button on their phone if they want to listen to a lecture, and really don't need to re-mortgage the house for the experience. What Generation Alpha want is the skills and awareness to make a difference in this world.
This means that not only the learning experience has to be more about the learner than the teacher, but also that it has to be focused on the values and issues of a more socially and environmentally conscious generation. Sustainability is not an elective, but needs to be embedded in all aspects of Business School education. We cannot teach the Thunberg generation how to get rich by extracting ever more diminishing resources and widening glaring inequity gaps. Learners will reject this increasingly, and they are right to do so.
Sustainability is not just about resource management. Business schools can stand out here by actively working to reduce the gender gap, reversing the attainment gap in diverse applicants, doing meaningful work on inclusion and standing more vocally and actively for social justice.
We have already written recently about how all jobs are green jobs, and that sustainable thinking is a huge draw for employers who are either being forced to reduce carbon emissions and/or are actively seeking to go beyond the mandated changes to be a positive force in their sector. This is only set to increase, and Business Schools who ignore this and try tokenistic band-aid fixes are really going to miss an opportunity to be part of a fundamental shift.
Does any of this chime with what you are trying to do in your institution? We want to support you, because our part in this is to elevate and sharpen the voices calling for change and help them to succeed over the institutions who are not. We are clear about that, and we can help your message to come through clearly too, so do reach out to chat with NEO about how we can help you stand out.
*Don't do it. Gen Z and Alpha can sniff out this stuff and can easily find out that your "award" from "XXX magazine" (censored) was given to pretty much anyone that paid for advertising space, or that your EQYASTHST Gold Standard membership (we made that one up) was "conferred" by a shadowy company with no registered office who encourages award holders to "self-monitor" their quality in exchange for money. Such practices undermine people's faith in such claims, and fund organisations who have little interest in the integrity of education.