The Educational Safe Haven is No Lie

In 2009, the Great Recession predictably drove companies to cut education and travel, just as past recessions had, but unlike the overall economy, executive education enrollment has made an impressive comeback in 2010. Enrollment took a hit at the onset of the recession, and the cuts in professional training and tuition reimbursement forced schools to respond with redesigned programs.

"Due to the recession, executive education enrollments were down 25% to 50% nationwide," said James Johannes, associate dean for executive education at UW-Madison.

Now, after avoiding an economic abyss, and with business organizations still trying to do more with less staff, schools are being approached for training in leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, and team work, and they are responding in kind — both in general terms and by tailoring on-site programs for high-profile clients. In the process, they've also adjusted tuition slightly downward and ramped up service with the aforementioned on-site delivery, and even by collaborating with other institutions to deliver programming. The result is a more accommodating marketplace for companies who covet more versatility in their workforce, and to individual professionals, many of who are seeking additional skills to increase their value to employers and make themselves as "recession-proof" as possible.

Safe Haven

The view of education as a safe haven during hard economic times is not overstated. The stubbornly persistent "jobless recovery" has given college students a perfect excuse to stretch out their under-graduate or post-grad pursuits, and it has given professional people the motivation to return to class.

Johannes manages UW-Madison's open enrollment executive education programs. His area, which is separate from the UW's for-credit MBA programs and the Center for Advanced Studies in Business (which customizes executive education programs), has seen its enrollment jump about 30% in 2010, after declining by about the same percentage in 2009.

Typical enrollees are people in the business community who are in their early-to-mid career and need to learn more about a particular aspect of business, or someone who has new job responsibilities — perhaps someone from human resources who has moved up the chain and now needs to understand more about the financial and accounting side. Some enrollees are people preparing for a rebound in the economy and who want to know something about growth strategies or marketing.

Since executive education schools have their own budgets, the steep enrollment drop helped bring about changes that impacted their relevance in these economic times. Johannes said the UW open enrollment program focused its offerings on four business drivers: business operations (accounting and finance); business growth (marketing and sales); people management (HR and leadership); and process management (including project management and Six Sigma).

It also targeted industries that are more resilient to the recession: technology, health care, and food-and-beverage industries.

Since the economy is not out of the woods yet, Johannes said the point for employers and executive education programs was to "get out ahead of the economy."

For the UW's MBA programs, proactivity means going out to the customer's site. Mason Carpenter, who is in charge of the MBA programs — weekend, evening, and corporate — said the corporate MBA usually is developed in partnership with large local companies. Its current one with Kohl's Corp. is conducted face-to-face at the company's Menomonee Falls headquarters, where 7,000 people report to work. "Companies with large employee bases find that for retention, this war for talent, providing an MBA that is onsite, with the rigor and the structure of traditional MBA, works out well," Carpenter said.

According to Carpenter, MBA enrollment is returning to pre-recession levels. Overall, the UW's MBA program has 300 students enrolled across the three segments, but that wasn't the case in 2009. The executive (weekend) program, which normally enrolls 70 students across two years, had fewer than 30 last year, which was a reflection of the downturn.

Whereas students look to the evening MBA to retool for a leadership role or to manage continuing uncertainty in the economy, employers are more willing to reimburse students for the executive (weekend) MBA because they see it as a retention and recruitment strategy for higher-level managers.

MBA programs have largely been about career changes, but this time there is a new twist. "What we're seeing more and more is that people are still changing careers, but within their own company," Carpenter said. "They are promoting themselves to roles with more responsibility, and they are trying to upgrade their current position to have a role that creates more impact."

Tammy Thayer, president of the Center for Advanced Studies in Business in the Fluno Center for Executive Education, said despite recessionary cut backs, some companies are very forward-thinking in developing their talent. Most of the dollars appear to be going into the development of high-potential leaders, particularly when it's linked to corporate strategy.

The Center is working with two leading manufacturers in metro Milwaukee to develop high-potential leaders, and one organization incorporates real projects into the learning. "That translates into a very positive return on investment," she noted.

Similar trends are reported in local schools that cater more to general adult learning.

Scott Campbell, dean of the school of graduate and professional studies at Edgewood College, said those programs grew by 50.3% from July 1 of 2009 to June 30 of this year. Edgewood's graduate programs, most of which are tailored to professionals, grew enrollment by 26%. Campbell said the average age of that student is about 35, so these are people who, for one reason or another, did not finish their undergraduate work in the traditional timeline.

Campbell partially attributes the enrollment increase to Edgewood's development of a post-doctoral nursing program, the addition of a cohort to its marriage and family therapy program, and the development of a corporate learning partnership program. With the latter, Edgewood went to its biggest "feeder clients" and educated their employees about Edgewood programs and scholarships.

The more people a company enrolls, the larger the scholarship Edgewood can provide.

The college has established partnerships to create leadership development programs, while conducting program assessments and building a whiteboard measurement tool along the way. Campbell confirmed that Edgewood saw some of its corporate partners and feeder organizations cut back on their tuition benefits, which he views as a challenge in demonstrating that its programming is aligned with workforce development needs. "I think corporations with tuition reimbursement see that as a benefit for the employee," he noted. "We also want that to be seen as having an impact on the bottom line for that organization. We're doing that through better assessment of learning objectives."

Herzing University's main contribution to corporate training often is designed around computer training. Since technological innovation continues unabated, area professionals will come back for a course or two, especially for the latest in technologies where they received prior training and earned degrees: CAD drafting, electronics, or network security.

"In some cases, they come back for another minor or associate degree that will enhance what they are doing," said Don Madelung, president of Herzing.

Enrollment reached a record 1,006 students this fall, with adults comprising about 30 to 35% of the total, Madelung indicated. Even with a fair complement of high school age students, the average age of a Herzing enrollee is in the late 20s.

Herzing has seen some decline in tuition reimbursement, with more adult students paying out of pocket, but they also get programming integrated with leadership skills, critical thinking, and entrepreneurship.

"The companies have always been good about reimbursing and using that as a golden handcuff to keep people employed with continuing education," Madelung said. "Any company that knows an individual is going to school realizes they will be around for awhile, so we haven't seen a tremendous amount of that, but there are a few peripheral companies that had to reduce or at least cut back a portion of the money they use to support people."

During these rocky economic times, tuition hasn't changed a great deal at Herzing, which uses a tuition model based on inflation and expenses it has no choice but to incur. Cost drivers come with salaries, rising book expenses, and constantly changing technology needs. The university rolls over its computers "at least every couple of years," Madelung said, and installs frequent software upgrades from various companies. "We don't want to stay on the bleeding edge, but we certainly want to stay in the mainstream," he said. "That's not inexpensive."

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