Four Critical Issues Affecting the Future Success of Business Schools

Nearly 15 years ago, when serving as associate dean, my boss often introduced me to groups with the quip that "an associate dean is just a mouse in training to become a rat." Each time everyone laughed, and I would smile. Now, as I transition from my role as dean of Pitt Business to a new adventure, I keenly understand what my boss meant, even as I cringe at the animal of choice in the analogy. To be the head of a competitive business school in higher education, qualities like shrewdness, tenacity, ingenuity and competitiveness are important for any dean -- or rat -- to have. Being as quiet and as timid as a mouse just won't do.

As I reflect on my nine years as dean and look ahead to the future, I foresee four significant issues affecting business schools and higher education that will warrant attention and drive change in the next decade.

First, the focus on business school rankings has grown almost out of control. There are more rankings today than 10 years ago, and schools are devoting considerable time and resources to meet the demands of ranking entities (Businessweek, Economist, Financial Times, Forbes, and US News & World Report). As a dean, I have sometimes described rankings as the equivalent of stock prices for business schools, with fluctuations indicating whether people are bullish or bearish on our future. And unfortunately, in that sense, it is not out of the realm of possibility that daily rankings will be published in the future, aided by social media platforms.

We live in a TripAdvisor world where people seek and expect up-to-date evaluations of everything. The expectation creates challenges for organizations, as the criteria used by evaluators vary and ratings become misconstrued by factors outside of an organization's control (e.g., a hotel's rating may be affected by street noise, the weather at the time of a visit, the appearance of other guests, and so on), as well as the reviewers' selective recollections and unclear (or poor) writing. Indeed, rankings are so hyped that I was surprised by the recent decision of the Obama administration to eliminate its proposed college rankings. I predict that there will be other organizations that will step in with new approaches to valuing business schools, law schools, engineering schools, and universities more generally. My hope is that their methodology is well conceived and purposeful, rather than narrow and arbitrary.

While many criticisms about rankings are valid, the reality is that a school must not focus on the factors it cannot control, but rather the ones it can influence. If rankings reflect student outcomes, such as job placement, satisfaction with professors and classes, mastery of a subject (e.g., CPA exam passage), then it makes sense for a school to focus on efforts to boost those factors. At Pitt Business, we found that paying attention to these controllable factors led to improvements in rankings. In some sense, our response to the rankings would seem to be the one sought by parents and students. If we obsess about the factors associated with student success, we will offer better value.

Ten years ago, two of my colleagues wrote an academic paper showing that rankings affected turnover among deans. My response was "gee, thanks." The finding was unsurprising as other studies link professional sports coaching careers to teams' win/loss records. Of course, the problem with college rankings is that you only see the pre-season poll. The compared schools never "play each other" during the year. The creation of ratings tied to specific, objective outcomes, such as placement, student satisfaction, academic quality, high quality faculty, etc. could provide useful information for parents and prospective students. Therefore, there is a legitimate place for ratings and rankings, and colleges need to accept this or be overwhelmed by the waves that are just over the horizon.

Second, in addition to the importance of rankings, it is equally necessary to consider value vs. cost. The notion of value is understood intuitively. Many people are willing to pay much more for a BMW than a Chevy because they seek something more than a machine that gets them from one place to another. In higher education, value is associated with a variety of intangible factors, as well as previously mentioned success outcomes. Colleges that provide greater value can command a higher price. More importantly, the outcome for students will be better if they enroll in a college that emphasizes the factors most important to a particular student's needs. In that sense, value is not necessarily increased if a college adds more online courses relative to providing more opportunities to master a subject or craft.

While I am sure some colleges will become the low-price leader and excel in that category, most students need colleges to emphasize factors that are crucial to student success. In this vein, over the next decade, I expect a growing discussion about the amount of time spent by professors in the classroom -- seeing as studies have suggested that students in our current generation seek this kind of learning and benefit greatly from learning from a leader at the front of the class.

Third, the job structure of the economy has changed dramatically during the past decade and the pace of change is accelerating. Current trends suggest that many entry-level jobs for college graduates -- commercial banking, insurance and advertising -- are on a path to contraction. This means that colleges must accelerate their cycles of curricular change to ensure that students are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. In this sense, it is evident that more discussion of the nature of a "liberal arts" curriculum will occur in coming years as students and parents seek assurance that an investment in college majors will produce career benefits. Note that I am not criticizing the subjects comprising the liberal arts core -- critical thinking, writing and strong communication skills are more valuable today than ever before. My point is that colleges will need to justify required curricula, using metrics that might have been ignored in the past.

Fourth, how do we measure the value of a college education? Is it a priceless transitional experience from youth to maturity, an instrumental activity (i.e., path to a job), or is it something else? As long as society sees college as the time-honored American experience equivalent to "apple pie," the opportunity to generate better outcomes will escape us. As long as the government provides guaranteed student loans to anyone attending any school, regardless of the outcomes attained on average, we are shortchanging students and taxpayers.

One of the most important educational lessons I learned over the past decade is that we do not talk directly and openly in society about how to measure the value of higher education. This is disappointing, especially because the amount of information available on what methods generate strong student outcomes is limited and education is so important to an individual's success. We can do much better.

Education offers hope for a better future; it helps diverse peoples come together, nations overcome shortages and individuals achieve their aspirations. That's why I love the opportunity to be a part of the higher education industry and look forward to my continuing interactions with a world of life-long learners.