Never Finished

By Tricia Bisoux

February 22, 2017

IN THE U.S., especially, academics often describe a doctoral degree as a terminal degree—the highest degree achievable in one’s field of expertise. But to me, the use of the word “terminal” to describe any educational credential seems strange. Its sense of unquestioned finality implies that degree holders are done learning and now can move on to other things.

It’s true that college degrees serve as evidence of what graduates have learned. But in today’s market—where the technological, sociological, and regulatory environment is ever-changing—many workers will stay employable only as long as they keep learning new skills. As a result, we’re seeing flourishing demand for just-in-time education, from providers such as The Great Courses, which offers learners the ability to audit online college-level classes, to, which offers short-term courses to help LinkedIn members build their business and technology skills. And, of course, there are Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, edX, MIT Opencourseware—the list of MOOC providers is steadily growing. If ever we viewed college graduation as learning’s end, it might be time to rethink that assumption.

That’s why we wanted to take a closer look at the role business schools will play in supporting lifelong learning. “Education for Life,” for instance, explores how workers are increasingly turning to short-term educational experiences to boost their skills. As Hugh Courtney of Northeastern University puts it, “The best way for schools to give them that education is to unbundle degrees and think about how to give students exactly what they need, when they need it, in the formats that work best for them.” In “Collecting Credentials,” David Schejbal of the University of Wisconsin-Extension discusses the fact that more employers are valuing short-term credential- and badge-based education as proof of workers’ skills. Business schools that ignore this segment of the market, he says, risk losing ground to for-profit providers of targeted, just-in-time learning.

This issue also highlights ways that schools are opening students’ eyes to the good they can do in the world. In “Inspired by Public Value,” Martin Kitchener of Cardiff Business School explains how Cardiff aims to help students develop a greater sense of social responsibility through its new public-value-inspired mission. In “From Conflict to Commerce,” John Graham and William Hernández Requejo explain how UC-Irvine wants its students to promote peace, not just profits, through its MBA Peacebuilding Program. As stories like these show us, the learning process for all students is evolving far beyond what we have come to view as “traditional.”

It’s clear that the boundaries of education will continue to shift, especially as adult learners seek new types of education even after they leave the workforce. To what extent will they view business schools as providers of these experiences? That will depend on the opportunities business schools offer, and how much we all begin to view education as neither “terminal” nor “traditional,” but as “transitional” and perhaps even “transformational.” It also will depend on whether we view graduation less as a finish line, and more as one stop on the path to a lifetime of learning.