Coppola: A New Mission

Business schools should not give in to online platforms.

by Cristoforo Coppola | 10/20/16 12:30am

The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College has recently refined its mission statement. Along with the headline, “Tuck educates wise leaders to better the world of business,” Tuck has integrated a small paragraph explaining the meaning of wisdom:

Wisdom encompasses the essential aptitudes of confident humility, about what one does and does not know; empathy towards the diverse ideas and experiences of others; and judgment, about when and how to take risks for the better. Through the application of such wisdom, enlightened decisions can be made to substantially improve business performance and the world we live in.

The decision to expand upon Tuck’s mission statement is significant. According to an Oct. 15 article in “The Economist,” more MBAs are awarded in business than in any other discipline, with over 189,000 diplomas given out in the 2013-14 academic year. Despite this, however, signs suggest that MBAs are losing steam. In recent years, applications to most programs have been decreasing or remaining static. There are many possible explanations as to why this is happening, but I would like to discuss one in particular — the rise of online MBA programs.

In recent years, the reputation of online MBA programs for offering a lower quality education is quickly changing, especially as an increasing number of top business schools in the United States, such as the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, create programs that combine their brick-and-mortar operations with online platforms. Some schools, such as Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business, have gone further by creating an entirely online program. This expansion of online MBA programs seems unlikely to end anytime soon. In 1989, only three universities offered online MBAs; today, 207 universities do. As they expand and become more established, moreover, online MBA programs are quickly increasing in popularity.

A primary reason for the increase in online MBA programs is the high cost of MBAs. Currently, the average cost of tuition for a traditional MBA program is $80,000, and that does not even cover living costs or any additional expenses. On the other hand, the average cost of an online MBA program at a nationally accredited business school is just $11,972; most online programs can be more expensive with a cost between $35,000 to $50,000, but even this is still significantly cheaper than the price of a traditional MBA.

But with the increasing accessibility of an MBA comes the increased risk that people are placing less value on the MBA experience. The traditional lure for an MBA does not hold anymore, and business schools must find another incentive to attract students. It is thus critical for deans across the U.S. to make a better case about why the brick-and-mortar experience is much more valuable than an online experience — valuable enough to justify the $30,000 or more price difference.

Tuck seems to be trying to create this justification with its new mission statement. It wants to distinguish itself as an institution that can offer students more than just textbook skills by defining business wisdom not merely as knowledge but as encompassing three competencies: humility, empathy and judgment. These are skills that are difficult to learn through a computer screen because they are reflections of our real-life experiences. In line with this, Matthew Slaughter, the Dean of Tuck, has opposed the launch of an online MBA program at Dartmouth..

Some might call this decision archaic or say that it reflects Tuck’s unwillingness to adapt to the changing world of technological advances. Yet I recognize that brick-and-mortar business schools, with their classrooms, projects and human interactions, are an invaluable asset. While both brick-and-mortar and online MBA programs aim to “improve business performance,” the former also help students gain a sense of purpose by showing them they can make a positive impact in their communities. More importantly, by providing an environment to develop their business personalities, they teach students how to connect with others in face-to-face interactions, an essential skill in business.

Of course, businessmen should still be concerned with profit maximization. It has been the driving force behind capitalism, which has had considerable success in reducing poverty and raising living standards. Yet this doesn’t mean that business schools should only be concerned with this simple economic principle.

As Tuck’s new mission statement announces, we should also be concerned with trying to “substantially improve the world we live in.” It is only through the interactions and guidance of professors and students that can we reach this goal.