Friday, October 2, 2009

Teaching communications in MBA programs may be moot

Reference to debate over more PR being taught in MBA programs at

This is one of the longest discussions we have had on the evergreen topic. Given the economic realities of the market and the cost of education; I will argue that we may be too late to even include communications in business schools. First, I have some history for you.

Our A.W. Page B-School Committee has debated the topic for over a decade with all the frustrations demonstrated above. At a personal level most of you know that I moved from teaching at the Business School at Wisconsin-Madison to the Medill School of Journalism. With a joint doctorate in Business Management and in Journalism Mass Communications (PR and Advertising and similar joint undergraduate work), I was recruited to teach graduate PR, marketing and management. Our goal was to create the new Integrated Marketing Communications program in response to chaos in the industry and in Schools of Journalism and Communications. We knew that we could offer the best of a business management degree since we had been on the campus long before Kellogg and could make an agreement to use communications as the strategic field of study. We received a great deal of valued publicity when our work was attacked by the biggest academic names in Communications and PR for “getting in bed with marketing”.

We have not looked back since that time and have given students tremendous opportunities to use communications as a strategic advantage in business and complex organizations. Our agreement with the Kellogg School of Management (including joint appointments for IMC faculty there and in Engineering) have given our students a competitive advantage. Our students are “terminal degree” candidates with business and political experience like MBAs who don’t want to use the masters as a pre-doctoral degree. At Medill IMC we now offer a program for undergraduates in IMC with PR since Kellogg does not have an undergraduate degree (they have a very small certificate program for some undergrads).

However, in the business schools and other professional schools; the issue has dramatically changed. The private schools may face the issue of “return-on-investment” for a professional graduate degree not being worth the risk. Even the “pubvate” schools (a term for public schools that are no longer substantially supported by state aid) are raising tuition and fees more rapidly than the private schools. The issue is compounded the failure of state taxpayers and legislators to support higher education but to still muddle in the work of the university. For example, only 20% of the support for the University of Ilinois-Urbana is from state funding. The private schools like Northwestern consider all pubvates direct competitors for federal money, grants, alumni dollars, tuition. At many private schools and increasing numbers of pubvates tuition costs for an MBA or IMC degree exceed a reasonable payback period. I am developing a website “widget” for students to calculate before returning to school the real costs and benefits of a professional graduate degree. The breakeven point on the degree can be over a decade which means that many students may never pay back the degree costs from their career income. They also still have loans outstanding from their undergraduate work which I do not challenge with the ROI message. While education has some non-fiscal values, we are asking the same questions that allowed the preparation of economic impact and social impact statements on national and state legislation. My preliminary conclusions are that the only business related graduate degree that has a potentially positive ROI is a part-time degree that allows the student to work and avoid the opportunity costs of leaving their income producing job.

We can worry about communications being a critical function in business (and I agree) but the key issues are whether your companies will 1. support education and training for your employees, 2. how students can repay outrageous business degree costs (compared to your degree costs many years ago), 3. support higher wages for professional degree holder from MBA and IMC programs to get the talent you want, 4. support extensive research (not just case studies) on the real value of communications in business decision-making, crisis management, political risks to business, etc.

By Clarke L. Caywood, Ph.D. on October, 02 2009

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