Pandemic Spurs Interest in Working Professional Graduate Programs

It turns out that even in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, working professionals are looking for educational opportunities to prepare them for the ever-changing workplace.

When the pandemic led to stay-at-home orders, sending the economy in a downward turn, it also meant a period of questioning for programs that serve working professionals, such as EMBA Programs, said Jamie Breen, assistant dean, MBA Programs for Working Professionals, University of California, Berkeley.

Working Professionals Are Investing in Education

In short, would the pandemic combined with a struggling economy result in fewer professionals who wanted to pursue an educational degree experience?

“What we saw was quite the opposite,” she says. “There was a lot more interest and a lot more applications.”

Breen participated as part of a panel at the 2020 Executive MBA Council Virtual Conference. Panel members took a broad look at the working professional market and included Breen; Stephan Kanlian, professor and chair, Master’s Degree Program, Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and Management, School of Graduate Studies, Fashion Institute of Technology; and Ying Zhao, managing editor, Michael Desiderio, EMBAC executive director, served as moderator.

Not every school and program may share Berkeley’s experience, making it difficult to understand the whole picture. “I don’t think we actually know what’s going to happen frankly,” said Breen. “One data point doesn’t make a trend.”

Uncertainty Can Lead Working Professionals to Invest in Increasing Their Value

Yet, for many working professionals, a downturn time offers an opportunity to retool.

Many professionals look at a time of incredible uncertainty like this and say, I need to invest in myself, said Breen. “We have said there is no better place to be at this time than in business school.”

The business school experience helps working professionals make sense of the changing environment and at the same time prepare themselves to add increased value to organizations that are navigating that environment.

Kanlian also sees interest in the executive graduate education market and opportunities for programs.

The Fashion Institute of Technology maintains close ties with the industry. Organizations invest in the graduate programs to help keep talent, and professionals want to continue building their skills. “I think there is more demand out there.”

Changes Are Occurring in China’s Educational Market

China faced its own recovery after the initial wave of the pandemic hit the country hard. In the educational market, Zhao has observed some joint venture programs experiencing growth and others experiencing a slight decline in enrollment. The biggest difference between this year and last? The difference in age is wider than before, with increases in the older age groups.

Business schools in China also are adding new industry-focused content, such as artificial intelligence, manufacturing, and retail, she said. In some cases, students are helping design curriculum.  The schools view these new courses as a way to draw attention to programs, and it seems to be succeeding.

“These specializations have gotten to be more and more welcome by the market because early on the products were too similar to one another,” said Zhao.

Business Schools Looking at New Innovations to Meet Changing Needs

Schools are also exploring more blended programs, which are proving more popular in the market as student interest in online offerings is increasing. “This opportunity is a new door for all of us,” she said.

Business schools face challenges and also opportunities, said Kanlian. “I think the moment for opportunity is ripe for entrepreneurial spirit and innovation within the Executive MBA and the graduate business education sector,” he said.

Breen agreed.  “The working professional space and market for the kind of education we provide is really deep and really rich,” she said.  “It’s up to us to figure out how we tap into that because it’s changing rapidly. There is a lot more we can do and that’s the exciting part coming out of this.”

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