Will the Echo Boomer Generation Save Graduate Business Education?

In recent years, graduate business programs have received little good news and even less praise. Fewer American students are taking the GMAT test, competition for MBA students is increasing, people are questioning the value of business education, entrepreneurs are aggressively promoting their online solutions to the problems and educational costs continue to rise. Some observers predict that scores of schools — and even entire universities — will go out of business in the coming decade. As the very large baby boomer generation nears retirement, advances in technology, the globalization of markets and economies and government concerns about measuring learning could bring to an end the golden age of American higher education.

That’s the bad news. On the other hand, as a business school dean, I wonder whether another baby boom has given us opportunity. The echo boomer generation — children of the baby boomers — is now completing college and entering the workforce. Soon, there will be many more people with several years of job experience under their belts and a desire to improve their circumstances. This echo boomer generation, also known as Gen-Y or Millennials, was born between 1982 and 1995 and numbers nearly 80 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more 22-year-olds last year than any other age group in the United States, followed by 23-year-olds and 21-year-olds. These young adults are either in college, headed to graduate school or poised to enter the working world. Graduate business schools need to plan accordingly.

As college administrators, we need to prepare for an influx of echo boomers in the classroom, as this enormous cohort means larger applicant pools and some measure of relief from higher education’s environment of hyper-competition. Enrolling these students in large numbers will require changes. Institutions will need to balance intergenerational differences between students and professors, facilitate productive communication at speeds expected by a generation that has grown up texting, and address issues of concern to echo boomers, such as fair treatment of adjunct faculty and teaching assistants.

Echo boomers are different from their parents and have different expectations. According to survey research, echo boomers are more interested in doing work that helps others than they are in making money. They demand mentorship and expect a high-tech fast-moving workplace. They desire flexibility and fair treatment. Compared with their parents, echo boomers have been exposed to more technology-enhanced learning, have experienced a greater emphasis on standardized tests, face more pressure to build the right resume and are more attentive to high-quality brands.

At the same time, echo boomers seem to be competitive and impatient. Maybe this is because they’ve grown up in an era when long careers at the same company have disappeared as quickly as company-funded pensions. This has fueled interest in entrepreneurship, as younger workers seek to offset the uncertainty caused by job switching and shorter careers. It has also fueled a decline in trust of corporations, business leaders, and colleagues.

Given such views, the echo boomer generation will expect graduate business programs to give more attention to corporate social responsibility (CSR), namely discussion of ethics in applied forms as it relates to wage policies and societal inequality, corporate responses to climate change, LGBT rights and corporate political action. These issues will need attention alongside and within traditional coursework, such as accounting, finance and marketing. This generation will be interested in interdisciplinary approaches to issues relevant to its ideas and goals. The manner in which echo boomers have been educated will create a conflict for graduate business programs.

Not surprisingly, echo boomers expect large doses of technology to be present in their graduate programs. Schools must incorporate mobile and digital media in the learning process outside of the classroom to meet this generation’s expectations. Because of both exposure to technology and the emphasis on building the right resume, this generation must have many opportunities outside the classroom to practice concepts. This means exposure to internships, real-world projects, social entrepreneurship opportunities and public-goods projects is necessary for a school to attract these students. Business education must be more applied in the future to prepare these students for their careers.   

If graduate business programs can meet the desires of the echo boomers, one might ask how students will pay for their degrees.  As many observers have noted, one of the most significant statistics differentiating echo boomers from baby boomers is the amount of student loan debt these young adults carry at graduation. With declining returns on investment, prospective students will likely think hard about the value of a $120,000 MBA education. 

If enacted and maintained, President Obama’s loan forgiveness program could provide some help to students (and business schools).  It aims to ease financial burdens for students and graduate students using federal loans, freeing them of their debt as soon as possible so they can focus on their studies rather than on looming payments. The plan considers income and family size and those who qualify may have their monthly loan repayments limited to 10 percent of their income. Participants who have made timely, regular payments for more than 20 years will have their outstanding debts cleared, and those who work in government departments will have their debts cleared after 10 years. As with many government solutions, however, this will likely bring more oversight to educational programs and additional emphasis on learning outcomes.

The cost of higher education and resulting student loan crisis has a direct effect on the future of the echo boomers. Nine out of 10 echo boomers say they eventually want to own a place of their own, but what will happen when an echo boomer goes to buy a house, buy a car or pay for their own child’s education while balancing their own college debts? We should not expect the nation — taxpayers — to pay for this.

The best answer to the debt question is that business schools will have made the appropriate adjustments in curricula, experience-based learning opportunities and theory/practice mix in order to give students the skills needed to command higher compensation premiums at work. What today’s educators do for echo boomers will have a significant impact not only on the students, but also on the future of faculty and the educational system as a whole. Echo boomers are massive in number and have a lot to offer, but they will only save graduate business education if business schools change their programs to infuse technology, emphasize practice, and evaluate competencies rather than simply focus on time spent in the classroom.  



A Paradox of College Students Today: Acing Tests and Failing Interviews

I recently traveled to London for a University of Pittsburgh alumni event, where I presented our Distinguished Alumni Award to Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations.  During my trip, I met with Della Bradshaw, business education editor at the Financial Times. Our interesting interview started with a discussion of the current job market for MBA students and the skills students need to succeed in their careers.

I told Ms. Bradshaw that placement outcomes at my business school have improved in each of the past four years. Our success in career services would be impossible if not for our emphasis on generating stronger admissions results. It may seem strange, but we see our MBA program from a supply chain management perspective, as an operation comprising procurement, manufacturing, and distribution components.  We must procure the correct and necessary student inputs. We must manufacture the inputs through a strong curriculum and other associated activities.  And we must distribute the finished products to our employer-customers.

Through this lens, I’ve observed a trend that is problematic to business schools all over the world. Students are doing much better academically, that is according to their test scores, grade point averages, and practically every other numeric achievement measure. Advanced placement credits are enabling top students to score above the maximum GPA level and students are studying more difficult subjects earlier in their career than was the case for my generation.  As a result, students are acing tests today.

Yet, at the same time, and as I noted in my conversation with Ms. Bradshaw, some students show a lack of polish in what I will call the “soft skills.” Many students struggle in their ability to work with others, interpersonal communications, management of relationships, and their critical thinking skills.  I have no doubt this shortcoming is evident in academic disciplines beyond business because the shortcoming is a result of an American education system that prioritizes the measurement of test scores.

Let’s contrast students’ dearth of soft skills with my school’s distinguished alumna in London, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.  She displays a wide set of skills. She interacts effectively and networks effortlessly with people in many different positions of society.  Her ability to negotiate, solve conflicts, and communicate with others is how she built a strong career with executive and government positions before her appointment at the Commonwealth. On a daily basis during her term, Mrs. Masire-Mwamba practiced the skilled diplomacy and politics necessary to navigate issues and problems faced by 53 member nations and to represent the diverse viewpoints of the Commonwealth’s professional staff.

Intelligent people do not automatically possess emotional intelligence. Too often, extraordinarily bright students fail in their interviews because of deficiencies here. In some cases, students seek guidance on how to overcome the gap. In others, students fail to perceive the problem or believe it is caused by others.  Ironically, they are behaving precisely how our educational system has trained them to behave.

Beginning with K-12 education, the American system is focused on rewarding the students who ace tests, despite the fact that high test scores, in and of themselves, don’t provide the requisite skills for passing interviews. That the system’s focus prioritizes learning is fine. But learning is too often measured exclusively by test scores and standardized results — and this approach is disconnected from the end goal. Test scores alone fail to yield the ultimate outcomes of the educational system:  the development of competent adults who are prepared to engage in gainful employment and contribute to society. More importantly, our system stresses that it is bad – no, worse than bad – to fail. Ever.  Perhaps this is why there seem to be so many sore losers today or why society is so polarized. It may also explain why we do not generate as much entrepreneurship as the country needs.

If we are to generate desired outcomes, we must more effectively connect the educational system’s focus and the results it intends to achieve.  At the University of Pittsburgh’s business school, we emphasize experience-based learning (EBL) as a way of linking the class experience and the outcomes that students — and their parents and society — expect after graduation. By creating practice fields and opportunities to apply concepts discussed in class, students experience the connection between theory and practice. They are placed in real world situations to practice what is discussed in class and to make mistakes.  That connection is what is necessary for our ever-smarter students to succeed in their interviews and careers.  It will also propel them to the level of success we expect of our distinguished alumni, people like Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba.



Now is the Time to Thank Your Teachers and Mentors

Commencements have come and gone and the class of 2014 has emerged into the working world. Many new graduates are reflecting on the professors (and the teachers before them) who have shaped their careers, studies and personalities. Accordingly, I would like to acknowledge some of the people who helped me grow into the person I am today. Mentorship is critical to students’ success in the classroom and their professional growth as they progress through their careers.

My mentors were not always educators in the traditional sense and they did not always come from places that I expected. Some of this is a product of my family and upbringing: 16 years of education at Catholic schools, including eight at institutions founded by Jesuits. This experience has shaped me tremendously, both because of what I was taught and because my education emphasized that action speaks louder than words. My religious faith has allowed me to deal with many crises and problems.

In college, by chance, I got a job working for the chaplain at Le Moyne College, Fr. Dan Mulhauser. While most of my time was spent on routine tasks, such as cleaning up after Mass, Dan often challenged me to stretch my limits. One afternoon, our security guard slipped and fell, dislocating his knee and breaking his leg. I expected to be a bystander, but Dan suggested that I accompany the guard to the hospital. Dan’s devotion to the man was inspiring. Upon reflection, I realized that Dan’s efforts helped the guard remain calm despite his pain. The lesson I learned was that helping others is of the utmost importance and that you must always be prepared, as you never know when you may be placed in an extreme situation.

Dan was transferred to Micronesia at the end of my freshman year. His replacement was a young Jesuit from Philadelphia: Fr. Frank Nash. Though I’m not sure exactly what brought Frank and me together, he saw something in me that I had not yet discovered. He was brilliant, an excellent listener and a wise friend. He supported me in many ways, even lending me his car once so I could take a friend’s sister to a dance. Another time, I remember him knocking on my door at midnight asking for help jump-starting his car’s dead battery (I had my parents’ truck that week). He treated me as an adult and expected me to act accordingly — and over time, I did.

On many occasions, I watched Frank interact with people. It was apparent he cared for everyone, emphasizing their interests over his, while at the same time providing a sounding board and willing ear. At one point, he suggested that I would be a good “company man,” but I went off to my graduate fellowship instead. Frank’s ministering taught me a fundamental lesson: To help others, you make yourself vulnerable. By caring, you risk rejection. By trusting, you risk being betrayed. But you are only authentic when you display your character to others. Some people display facades designed to display something positive when they seek only to honor themselves. When they act to betray or punish, they may leverage power to achieve their way. But in the end, people will see through such action as a self-serving effort. Working with Dan and Frank taught me how a man should act.

At the University of Illinois, my graduate school advisor, Peter Feuille, was a strongly regarded young scholar who arrived at the university at the same time I did. He was a hard worker with an incredibly competitive spirit. His guidance and encouragement helped me to build my academic skills and reputation. His competitive spirit and wit were on display many years later when I received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Illinois. Because he was unable to attend the event, Peter asked to have a letter to me read at the ceremony — one in which he provided me with praise and encouragement while recounting how he kicked my butt in a 10k run during a conference at Arden House in New York in 1982. It is true that he kicked my butt that day, but I know his true purpose in sharing this anecdote was to send me this message: Don’t become complacent after any award. From Pete, I learned to work hard and to persist when things don’t go as planned.

I also learned volumes from too many others to list, including Nels Nelson, Fr. William Bosch and Martin Wagner. I mention these men because I admire them. Nels, my primary undergraduate professor and advisor, pressed me to develop my expertise. Fr. Bosch was a live-in advisor to me and about 20 other undergraduate men at an off-campus house.  He made a great pizza, enjoyed practical jokes, and always was a voice of reason. He guided me in the right direction even though he did not seem to be doing so. Martin was a fabulous professor in graduate school. He was incredible — a former Rhodes Scholar, an active arbitrator, and a strong teacher; he was such an expert that students were afraid he’d ask a question and press for an answer. Beneath his high expectations and sometimes tough countenance was a wonderful, caring man — a truth revealed to me in time.

As I reflected on my important mentors, I asked myself why all the teachers listed above were men. The answer is because a large proportion of my teachers were men. Several women also contributed to my development and success.  Mary Sue Coleman, who appointed me University Ombudsperson during her tenure as president of the University of Iowa, demonstrated the value of authenticity. I was able to become an effective ombudsperson only because of what I learned from Maile Sagen. Maile, my co-ombudsperson, taught me to listen closely, get all sides of a story, be strong, and expect the unexpected. She helped me understand how to deal with difficult, frustrating and disappointing matters with poise.

In many ways, the lessons from these teachers are linked fundamentally. Each was a hard worker and expected as much from me. Each expected me to provide a full, accurate and critical answer, paper or presentation. They forced me to test my limits and be more than I thought possible. More than anything, they helped me live a point made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, If: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same…”

My mentors taught me that what we see as a success or a failure is really a fleeting moment in time. Your character reflects something more fundamental and important. You must be comfortable in your skin to make a difference in your world. I hope to inspire others in the way my mentors inspired me. I offer my most sincere appreciation to the individuals named and those I omitted who helped me to become the person I am, and I invite readers to thank their teachers and mentors, too.