Sunday, June 28, 2015

HBS Bets Big on CORe

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For years now, online and distance education have loomed as vaguely menacing threats off in the distance for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities.  It seemed as though the two were inevitably destined to clash.

Leave it to HBS to figure out a way to make the competition/coordination dynamic both smart and profitable.

HBX CORe was introduced last year and has since gone through three cohorts.  Far from being just another mini-MBA or online learning program, CORe was innovating from the start; consider HBX live, which promises to allow up to sixty students all around the world to 'sit in class' together and communicate via the cameras on their PCs.  Pretty heady stuff, but if anyone can pull it off, Harvard can.

Although there was already some buzz around HBX CORe, adcoms were understandably cautious about anointing it as a substitute for (or even a supplement to) traditional business school education, and many students we spoke to were wary about the cost/value.  Who can blame them?  When your two biggest selling points for a product are; 1. It costs money (compared to a MOOC) and 2. It's proprietary (not open source), you might have a tough time getting buyers interested.

Fortunately for Harvard, their prestige and reputation for intelligent positioning is well earned.  In a series of recent announcements, HBX partnered with Amherst, Carleton, Grinnell, Hamilton, Wellesley and Williams.  This allows the program to funnel smart, high-achieving students into the system and also allows it to take advantage of financial aid and tuition remission, an important selling point for indebted undergraduates.  

In the short term, this should increase the quality of incoming cohorts and increase selectivity, which is essential if Harvard wants to establish a prestige brand for its new offering and prevent it being seen as a simple cash-in.  

In the long term, things get even more interesting.  The new HBX partnerships could be the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between traditional universities and online and distance education.  Imagine you're Johnny Freshman and you got shut out of a required course for your major, or you're interested in something your school doesn't have strong offerings in -- for a small fee, you can get CREDIT for distance learning courses at top universities.  This could be the beginning of true education customization.

Of course, this is early days yet, and a lot of things could still go wrong -- but Harvard's initiative here is bold and smart, and will probably pay dividends very quickly in the rapidly evolving world of online education.

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It’s the online business education that isn’t an online business education. It’s taught by HBS professors, but it’s not an HBS program.  It’s an elite training program for ambitious future business students without the specific guarantees of an MBA degree. Such are the ambiguities and contradictions in Harvard’s new HBX core program.  Is it worth the high price of admission?

The frequently asked questions and HBX Core’s shiny new website look promising enough.  Many people decide to go to business school relatively late in life, it argues. Why should they be at a disadvantage compared to those who got involved in banking right after graduating? HBX core hopes to close the knowledge gap, improving students ability to hit the ground running when they start attending business school. The program is a part time commitment -- you can still do your job while you are taking the classes. It is also designed to be rigorous, delivering grades and promising serious expectations for assignments and class participation.

But can Harvard actually deliver value for the money with HBX Core? The answer isn’t yet clear, and it’s unlikely to be anytime soon. That said, we did our best to find out by contacting admissions officers in the know.  The results were a little disturbing.  Forster Thomas’s admissions contacts at top business schools indicated that not only has Harvard not reached out to them about the program to flout its benefits, many of them were not even aware it existed. Although they will most likely review it along with all the other new initiatives when they meet in the fall to begin considering admissions, it seems unlikely at this point that the Harvard name alone is going to make the Core certification leap out on anybody’s resume.

That said, there are a few things about HBX Core that might make it more valuable than your average community college accounting course, but even these aren’t sure things. For instance, will Harvard’s plan to grade on a high honors\honors\pass basis actually correlate to the business ability of students graduating from the program? If so, the program’s reputation easily grow over time. If not, it could lose all its credibility overnight.

All in all, it’s probably too soon to make a full judgment either way on HBX core. For students planning to apply next year, it’s hard to endorse the program unless you are absolutely planning to apply to Harvard. It seems like a safe bet that Harvard will want to promote the program and make it seem legitimate in its early stages, which means they will probably make a big show of admitting at least a few core students into HBS.

For other schools, the benefit is less clear. Also unclear is whether the core program can substitute in any meaningful way for full MBA program, or even a one-year-old part-time MBA program. Will employers value the certification?  Will Harvard try to bring some recruiters in as partners?  It’s an alternate approach which could bear fruit, but there are no signs of it as of yet.

We will keep our eye on the story as it develops. In the meantime, if you want to get the latest information on HBX core or if you have any questions, just contact us and will be happy to answer them.