A decade ago, the executive education program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School consisted primarily of open-enrollment classes that brought together groups of executives from diverse companies and fields for class lectures and projects. The executive education field has changed a good deal since then, and Wharton has been especially keen on adapting. With companies demanding programs designed just for their own employees, the university quickly shifted emphasis. Today, nearly 60 percent of the 8,000 to 10,000 executives who attend each year take part in custom programs.
As interest in custom programs escalates, so does the competition among institutions. "The bar for custom programs is rising," says John Spector, vice dean for executive education at Wharton. "I think that in the past, a custom program was just an open-enrollment program where all the participants came from one company. Now it is much more about a deep relationship between a corporation and an institution. There are dimensions that are more subtle and more complex than they were before."
At Wharton, this means that professors who sign on for a custom program that will include a one-week course session often wind up with a commitment that lasts more than a year. It begins by working with the company to craft the custom program, which can mean spending about three months with a company’s executive team studying company operations and strategy. That helps shape the course content.
The company then picks groups of promising managers, typically employees who are from 20 to 40 years old, and sends them to Wharton for a week or two of classes. That time is spent not just listening to lectures but also working on specific company issues or problems, with professors trying to help craft solutions.
"As customization becomes more and more necessary and expected, we have embraced the philosophy that the weeklong program is just the beginning of the process.
When the class is over, the professor typically must follow up, staying in touch with participants to answer questions and sometimes offering coaching. "As customization becomes more and more necessary and expected, we have embraced the philosophy that the weeklong program is just the beginning of the process," says Katie Wiesel, director of custom programs at Wharton. "We will insert the faculty and continue to be in front of the participants and get them to continue to work on these issues until it is complete. That can take a year or 18 months."
The price depends on what the company wants to accomplish. Each custom program is individually negotiated.
Wiesel says that designing a typical one-week custom program can cost from $25,000 to $100,000. Tuition tends to run about $30,000 per day for a group of 20 to 50 participants; for a five-day course, the tab can be $150,000. The more people a company sends, the lower the cost per person.
The grand total for a week: $175,000 to $250,000, plus room and board per person of about $1,750.
By comparison, Wharton’s one-week, open-enrollment executive training courses in topics like leadership and strategy tend to run about $8,000 per person. Sending 20 people through open-enrollment courses would cost about $160,000.
The trend is toward ever more customized education.
"Custom is all the rage right now," Wiesel says. "I really do think it is only going to get more so. I think the desire for customization will get even more complex."
Workforce Management, March 2005, p. 60 -- Subscribe Now!