Continuing Education for Business Owners and Employees

Providing or subsidizing continuing education is a powerful employee recruitment and retention tool that has long been used by large corporations. Now, with the flexibility and availability of online MBA programs, it's a perk that CEOs of small and midsize companies may want to consider, for themselves or for key employees, says Richard Skolnik, dean of the business school at the State University of New York at Oswego. Skolnik, whose program has 1,300 undergraduates and 100 MBA students, spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: Many entrepreneurs get into business in roundabout ways. They haven't necessarily studied business in college or gone through an MBA track. How difficult is it for them to go back and get that education?

Richard Skolnik: These programs are rigorous. The time frame is typically two years, increasing to three depending on the number of background courses you need. Our program requires 36 credit hours over 12 courses. Part-time students usually take two courses per semester, three semesters a year.

How can business owners handle that much work while they run their companies?

When most people think MBA, they think full-time, intensive programs. But hybrid and online programs are on the rise. This means more opportunities for small business owners and their employees to earn their MBAs while maintaining their roles at the business.

They are often structured so that classes meet at nights or on weekends. Or you can take online classes that don't have class meetings at all. The time investment for either model is about nine to 12 hours per week, per course.

What specific benefits do MBA students stand to gain?

Certainly they will gain management skills and knowledge in areas where they may not have had formal training, like finance, marketing, organizational design, or human resources. Perhaps in their company they have a particular strength in one area but they have not been exposed to others. This gives them a formal framework for management skills.

Second, getting a graduate degree is an excellent networking opportunity that gives them exposure for their business to their professors and fellow students. And there may be the ability to get consulting on their business-specific problems in class projects.

Large companies often pay for, or at least subsidize, their employees' higher educations. You think that smaller companies should look into doing the same?

Speaking with my students who are evaluating potential job offers, one of the things they look at are professional development opportunities. And they often choose larger corporations' offers because they see that option.

I think that smaller companies that have the ability can subsidize employees' advanced degrees and use that both for potential recruitment and retention. And their investment will pay off in the form of better-trained, higher-skilled employees in the long run.

What kind of cost is involved?

There's a wide range of cost. If you're going to a private college, you might pay in the $50,000 range. But there are many public schools that are affordable, in the $20,000-to-$35,000 range for the entire program.

Have the online MBA programs brought down the cost?

No, but they are increasing the flexibility of the programs, which is important for entrepreneurs and their employees. For small businesses particularly, things happen that are unforeseen. You may think that you can attend class every Tuesday night and Saturday, but then an emergency comes up that requires your attention and you're not able to make those meetings.

The online option allows you to work at your own rate. Instead of having to be in class on a particular day, you have modules that have to be completed within a week or two. You work at your own rate and you can structure the work around your own schedule.

What would you advise small business owners to look for in an MBA program?

Ask about cohort-based programs vs. non-cohort-based. Some programs admit a cohort of students all at the same time and they progress through the classes together. Others allow enrollment whenever a student is ready to begin and they take the classes when they want to.

For small business owners and managers, their workload might be one level when they start. But then a crisis or maybe a merger comes up, and they have to step back for a while. You want to make sure the program allows them to take substantial time off and then continue on when they are ready.

Is there a prestige difference between a traditional MBA and an executive or online degree?

From what I've heard, from both students and faculty, the online program has the same amount of rigor as the others. There may be even more effort required because you have to be making posts and contributing to the class discussion. There's no way to sit in the class and be quiet.

Where can business owners find programs and evaluate them?

There's good information from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. They're an accrediting organization that gives a seal of approval to programs that they feel are meeting the best standards.

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