A Degree of Speed

Improved productivity and technological advances have accelerated demand for higher education, but not everyone wants to spend four or more years in college before they earn a degree.

As Michigan transitions to a knowledge-based, entrepreneurial economy, real progress will hinge on the successful evolution of higher education. Today’s colleges and universities must adapt to meet the needs of today’s students, who covet speed, convenience, and specialization through accelerated, online, and skill-building programs. Although the format of each program or curriculum may differ, all represent historic change for higher education — and a new array of options for students who seek flexibility.

Speed Through Efficiency

The need for obtaining an advanced degree has increased right alongside the demands on a student’s time. Many institutions are seeing growing interest in accelerated and dual-degree programs. The key for higher education, however, is to meet a student’s desire for rapid acceleration without compromising the learning experience or the integrity of a degree.

Success is centered on the efficient use of time. Students enrolled in a one-year MBA, for example, can expect a challenging year. This is especially true for those trying to balance work, school, and a demanding personal life. Programs may be a blend of traditional and online classes, and Saturdays often become another intense school day. There’s also extensive schoolwork expected outside of the classroom.

Students who want to pair a master’s degree with another degree now have a growing list of options. To meet that demand, we launched an MBA/Master of Science in Finance in the fall of 2009. The cost and required credit hours of the dual degree are significantly less than they would be for students completing each degree separately. For those with very specific career goals, a dual degree creates options that a single MBA or MSF degree may not. Employers value specialization, and may view a dual degree as proof of intellectual curiosity. Since the programs are rigorous, it’s often indicative of a candidate’s high academic caliber.

Learning Off Campus

If a student seeks convenience over speed, the fastest-growing option is an online program. With the ability to learn where and when it is possible, students can overcome the personal and professional time constraints that might keep them from pursuing a degree or further training.

While online learning is more convenient, students say the format is demanding; it takes motivation, self-discipline, and the ability to grasp concepts quickly. The process is highly interactive, and includes online discussion forums, video conferencing, live chats, and webinar tools.

A decade ago, many would question the academic integrity of an online education. Today, online learning is widely accepted, and most universities and colleges offer courses over the Web. Additionally, higher education accreditation agencies require that the programs deliver learning outcomes equivalent to traditional courses. Although the methods and delivery mechanisms differ, the core fundamentals and curriculum do not. Learning doesn’t have to happen in a classroom. Students can be anywhere. Faculty can be anywhere. The education experience has evolved — it is no longer constrained by geographic boundaries.

Building Knowledge, Not Credits

The scope of higher education isn’t limited to for-credit programs. As Michigan’s unemployment rate climbed in recent years, savvy colleges and universities launched business services to support entrepreneurial pursuits. While individuals in these programs may not need a degree, they do need a specific set of skills to successfully run a business.

Last fall we launched the Walsh Institute, where the offerings are designed to be practical. The list includes short — but intensive — workshops, one-on-one coaching, second-stage networking, educational seminars, customized training, and market research.

We also debuted the Blackstone LaunchPad, where entrepreneurial activity is encouraged among students and alumni (the effort is funded by the New York-based Blackstone Charitable Foundation). Participants who have a new business concept receive a personalized consultation. When their ideas mature, the LaunchPad staff pairs them with lawyers, accountants, venture capitalists, and others with the professional expertise to help the participants bring their ideas to market.

Road to Economic Recovery

In its 2010 progress report, the Ann Arbor nonprofit think tank Michigan Future Inc. found a clear pattern across the country. Metropolitan areas with the most successful economies are those with a concentration of knowledge-based enterprises.

Like my peers, I want our state to not just withstand, but also learn from, these turbulent times. Knowledge drives today’s economy, just as manufacturing did more than a century ago. There is a sense of urgency in Michigan, and higher education is evolving swiftly to help lead the momentum. It is promising to see our region’s colleges and universities so clearly recognizing this challenge, knowing that a student’s ability to learn must never be limited by a lack of options. db

Stephanie Bergeron is president and CEO of Troy-based Walsh College, a private, nonprofit institution.