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Would Graduate School Work Better if You Never Graduated From It?

Learning continues long after college ends. What if being enrolled in college was also a lifelong condition?

That is how Christian Terwiesch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, thinks graduate business programs might work in the future.

He and a colleague, Karl T. Ulrich, vice dean of innovation at Wharton, have published a paper on how the ascent of short video lectures—the kind popularized by massive open online courses and Khan Academy—might change the cost and structure of top business programs like Wharton’s. The short answer is that they probably won’t, at least not anytime soon.

But in an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Terwiesch ventured a guess as to how Wharton might change further down the line. The business school eventually might have to provide chunks of its curriculum on demand over a student’s whole career, he said, rather than during a two-year stretch at the beginning.

The idea makes at least some sense. Students come to Wharton to learn skills, but they also come to meet people and become part of an exclusive club of future power brokers. A two-year immersion makes sense for making friends, but when it comes to learning skills, it does not always make sense to serve the whole meal upfront.

“A long time can elapse between learning a chunk of knowledge and applying it,” write the two professors. They compare a Wharton degree to a Swiss Army knife: “You buy it today to use one day, but you know neither when you will use it nor which part of the knife you will use first.” More often than not, they say, students experience graduate school and its benefits in this order: “learn-learn-learn-certify-wait-wait-wait-deploy.”

Buying the whole knife upfront made sense when taking courses required students to move to Philadelphia. But the professors, who are among those at Wharton who have been experimenting with MOOCs, are increasingly convinced that online courses can be sufficient to teach specific skills to capable, invested students.

What might Wharton look like in 2035? Mr. Terwiesch agreed to speculate: Students accepted to Wharton would still take part in an immersive program right away. But instead of two years, it would last 10 months—long enough to make friends, participate in experiential parts of the program, and become members of the club. They would pay a fee for the immersion, but not the balance of their tuition.

After that, students would graduate into the work force, but they would stay enrolled at Wharton on a subscription basis. One day, a Wharton subscriber working in investment banking might get put on a team that oversees mergers and acquisitions. Instead of aching to recall the lessons she learned back in business school (and later forgot), she takes an online “minicourse” from Wharton. “The new pattern becomes learn-certify-deploy, learn-certify-deploy,” the professors write in their paper.

Flexible, online business programs aimed at working professionals already exist, but they tend to be oriented to a fairly prompt, definitive graduation date. Mr. Terwiesch’s idea of an exclusive graduate school that enrolls students over the course of their whole careers is a spitball, to be sure, but it may prove to be a sticky one.

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