THE BLOG
07/15/2014 09:26 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Will the Echo Boomer Generation Save Graduate Business Education?

In recent years, graduate business programs have received little good news and even less praise. Fewer American students are taking the GMAT test, competition for MBA students is increasing, people are questioning the value of business education, entrepreneurs are aggressively promoting their online solutions to the problems and educational costs continue to rise. Some observers predict that scores of schools -- and even entire universities -- will go out of business in the coming decade. As the very large baby boomer generation nears retirement, advances in technology, the globalization of markets and economies and government concerns about measuring learning could bring to an end the golden age of American higher education.

That's the bad news. On the other hand, as a business school dean, I wonder whether another baby boom has given us opportunity. The echo boomer generation -- children of the baby boomers -- is now completing college and entering the workforce. Soon, there will be many more people with several years of job experience under their belts and a desire to improve their circumstances. This echo boomer generation, also known as Gen-Y or Millennials, was born between 1982 and 1995 and numbers nearly 80 million. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more 22-year-olds last year than any other age group in the United States, followed by 23-year-olds and 21-year-olds. These young adults are either in college, headed to graduate school or are poised to enter the working world. Graduate business schools need to plan accordingly.

As college administrators, we need to prepare for an influx of echo boomers in the classroom, as this enormous cohort means larger applicant pools and some measure of relief from higher education's environment of hyper-competition. Enrolling these students in large numbers will require changes. Institutions will need to balance intergenerational differences between students and professors, facilitate productive communication at speeds expected by a generation that has grown up texting, and address issues of concern to echo boomers, such as fair treatment of adjunct faculty and teaching assistants.

Echo boomers are different from their parents and have different expectations. According to survey research, echo boomers are more interested in doing work that helps others than they are in making money. They demand mentorship and expect a high-tech fast-moving workplace. They desire flexibility and fair treatment. Compared with their parents, echo boomers have been exposed to more technology-enhanced learning, have experienced a greater emphasis on standardized tests, face more pressure to build the right resume and are more attentive to high-quality brands.

At the same time, echo boomers seem to be competitive and impatient. Maybe this is because they've grown up in an era when long careers at the same company have disappeared as quickly as company-funded pensions. This has fueled interest in entrepreneurship, as younger workers seek to offset the uncertainty caused by job switching and shorter careers. It has also fueled a decline in trust of corporations, business leaders, and colleagues.

Given such views, the echo boomer generation will expect graduate business programs to give more attention to corporate social responsibility (CSR), namely discussion of ethics in applied forms as it relates to wage policies and societal inequality, corporate responses to climate change, LGBT rights and corporate political action. These issues will need attention alongside and within traditional coursework, such as accounting, finance and marketing. This generation will be interested in interdisciplinary approaches to issues relevant to its ideas and goals. The manner in which echo boomers have been educated will create a conflict for graduate business programs.

Not surprisingly, echo boomers expect large doses of technology to be present in their graduate programs. Schools must incorporate mobile and digital media in the learning process outside of the classroom to meet this generation's expectations. Because of both exposure to technology and the emphasis on building the right resume, this generation must have many opportunities outside the classroom to practice concepts. This means exposure to internships, real-world projects, social entrepreneurship opportunities and public-goods projects is necessary for a school to attract these students. Business education must be more applied in the future to prepare these students for their careers.

If graduate business programs can meet the desires of the echo boomers, one might ask how students will pay for their degrees. As many observers have noted, one of the most significant statistics differentiating echo boomers from baby boomers is the amount of student loan debt these young adults carry at graduation. With declining returns on investment, prospective students will likely think hard about the value of a $120,000 MBA education.

If enacted and maintained, President Obama's loan forgiveness program could provide some help to students (and business schools). It aims to ease financial burdens for students and graduate students using federal loans, freeing them of their debt as soon as possible so they can focus on their studies rather than on looming payments. The plan considers income and family size and those who qualify may have their monthly loan repayments limited to 10 percent of their income. Participants who have made timely, regular payments for more than 20 years will have their outstanding debts cleared, and those who work in government departments will have their debts cleared after 10 years. As with many government solutions, however, this will likely bring more oversight to educational programs and additional emphasis on learning outcomes.

The cost of higher education and resulting student loan crisis has a direct effect on the future of the echo boomers. Nine out of 10 echo boomers say they eventually want to own a place of their own, but what will happen when an echo boomer goes to buy a house, buy a car or pay for their own child's education while balancing their own college debts? We should not expect the nation -- taxpayers -- to pay for this.

The best answer to the debt question is that business schools will have made the appropriate adjustments in curricula, experience-based learning opportunities and theory/practice mix in order to give students the skills needed to command higher compensation premiums at work. What today's educators do for echo boomers will have a significant impact not only on the students, but also on the future of faculty and the educational system as a whole. Echo boomers are massive in number and have a lot to offer, but they will only save graduate business education if business schools change their programs to infuse technology, emphasize practice, and evaluate competencies rather than simply focus on time spent in the classroom.