Bringing Graduate Education to the Workplace

Article excerpt

PAYING FOR BOOKS AND LITTLE ELSE, COMPANY EMPLOYEES BENEFIT FROM WEBSTER UNIVERSITY'S CORPORATE COHORT PROGRAM.

Just after work at 5:30 p.m. most Wednesdays, Sheri Graham hops in her car, tosses her textbooks and notepads on the passenger seat, and settles in for a 90-minute drive to St. Louis from Farmington, Mo. There, at her employer's headquarters, Graham and 64 other employees are enrolled in a 2.5 hour-long graduate business class. She usually arrives home around 11:30 p.m.

Graham, human resources director for Parkland Health Center in Farmington, says the strenuous Wednesdays don't bother her. The health center is owned by the medical care firm BJC HealthCare Corp., which is paying most of Graham's tuition for the course. Next May, Graham will receive an MBA that will significantly enhance her value as a company employee.

"This program is excellent," she says. "A traditional program would not work for me."

"Traditional" is one word that does not describe Webster University's four-year-old Corporate Cohort Program. The St. Louis-based university partners with businesses, bringing classes directly to the work place.

"The importance of the course is that you deal with the flexibility issue right up front," says Dr. Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster's Graduate School of Business and Technology.

Between 250-300 students participate in Webster's corporate cohort program, which to date partners with companies in Arkansas, Colorado, California, Florida, Missouri and South Carolina.

Webster has been a pioneer in higher education outreach. Years ago, for example, it opened small campuses on military posts throughout the country and overseas to give military personnel the chance to earn college degrees.

Webster's cohort concept was the product of a collaboration with mass-retail giant Wal-Mart. Headquartered in rural Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart had been exploring on-site graduate studies that would be cost-effective yet convenient for employees. Webster operated a campus in nearby Fayetteville, and in 2003 the two began discussing ways to work together.

Akande says he sees a series of "win-win" results from the close collaboration that is the hallmark of the cohort program.

"You take people in large corporations who do not work together and you bring them together in a classroom environment," he says. "I think from a corporate expense perspective, this enhances communication and the flow of ideas."

Because the courses are taught on-site in the evenings, it's easy for company employees to attend. The program typically takes little more than two years to complete and involves about 12 courses five times a year. The majority of the courses cover MBA requirements, but electives can be tailored to meet the host company's needs. At BJC, for instance, the electives can be drawn from Webster's health care administration courses.

"They've been unbelievably flexible," says JoAnn M. Shaw, BJC's vice president and chief learning officer. "We needed to focus the finance course more on health care finance and they did it right away."

One big plus for participating companies is the cost. Shaw says the courses cost about $15,000 per employee, most of which is covered by the company. She says she and BJC's president and CEO, Steven H. Lipstein, were both recruited from University of Chicago Hospitals, which had placed a premium on continuing education. "The CEO recognized the retention value of letting employees have the tools to be successful. …