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Cracking the Code on Educational ROI

How business schools can use data-driven storytelling to demonstrate the real-world value of their MBA programs to prospective students.

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Just a few years after headlines blared that the “MBA is dead,” MBA program enrollments actually spiked during the pandemic. This trend was fueled by a wave of interest from working adults who are more open to part-time study and online educational formats, as well as mid-career professionals who are focused on advancing or changing their careers.

Even before the pandemic, student satisfaction with MBA programs was already running high, with 96 percent of MBA graduates stating that they considered their degrees to have “good, excellent, or outstanding value,” according to a 2018 report from the Graduate Management Admission Council. Graduate management education—including MBA programs—has largely been shielded from the precipitous drops in enrollment that have occurred across much of higher education as a result of the pandemic.

But despite the surge in interest from prospective students, the MBA enrollment landscape remains surprisingly competitive. One-year programs—like National University’s one-year MBA with the Center for Creative Leadership—are gaining in popularity. At a time when consumers prize value and flexibility, prospective students have grown more cost-conscious and more focused than ever on ensuring that their investments in graduate education are tightly linked with the demands of the labor market.

For prospective students, outcomes are increasingly the coin of the realm. That means that it is the order of the day for higher education institutions to communicate the return on investment students might expect from their graduate education. The challenge for institutions, including business schools, is that they often rely on a handful of standout student success stories to convey the full value of their programs, when they could be leveraging data to communicate the bigger picture of their graduates’ success.

To help bridge the divide between enrollment and career outcomes, savvy business schools are turning to the use of data-driven storytelling. Using their own data, they can share with prospective students a more comprehensive picture of how investments in business education translate into long-term career and economic opportunity.

Telling Stories With Data

Like all organizations today, higher education institutions are awash in data. Just as consumer-driven businesses are using data to better understand the journeys of their customers and more precisely target their offerings, MBA programs are beginning to apply the field of data science to signal their value and compete in a crowded marketplace.

Consider the case of the Heider College of Business at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution based in Omaha, Nebraska. The Heider College has taken steps to tell more vivid stories about the part its programs have played in shaping learner journeys and alumni careers. In recent years, the program has made a conscious effort to articulate students’ “return on education” and attract applicants from diverse regions across the globe, with 80 percent of the college’s 1,500 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students coming from out of state.

Located in Omaha, home of the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffet and a central business hub of the Midwest, Creighton University has become a key feeder of talent to employers. This distinction has also played out within Heider’s graduate programs, as its alumni go on to become assets within a wide range of companies. The success of these alumni enhances the company’s reputation and visibility with corporate recruiters, paving the way for other Heider students to join their ranks.

Opportunities at Fortune 500 companies are well within the reach of Heider College students, with firms such as investment giant Goldman Sachs taking notice of the talent the school cultivates. These employers all become part of the alumni story, and students who graduate with job offers in hand and who draw on the lessons they have learned during their programs are all testimonies to the value of a Heider education.


The insights gleaned from this partnership will arm educators, administrators, and learners with the information they need to connect their planned educational experiences to real-world outcomes.


Part of the secret of the program’s success is the business school’s unique “Heider Mindset,” designed as a benchmark for the development of the harder-to-measure skills that employers crave. Woven through the MBA curriculum and extracurricular activities, the Heider Mindset encompasses six key competencies: communication, teamwork, perspective, project management, global understanding, and critical thinking. Students use an online dashboard called the Heider Mindset Achievement Portfolio to track their progress, as they complete courses and extracurricular activities that support each component of the mindset framework.

To develop its data-driven storytelling strategy, Heider’s MBA program tapped AstrumU®, a data services firm that works with colleges and universities to forecast the value of learning experiences in the labor market. Through this ambitious data science project, the university will now analyze millions of verified data points from both current students and recent alumni to understand how what they’ve learned at Heider translates into value in the labor market.

The college is now in the process of deploying the firm’s Enrollment Marketing Toolkit, which will help prospective students estimate their returns on investment from full-time and professional MBA degree programs at the front end of the enrollment process. The insights gleaned from this partnership will arm educators, administrators, and learners with the information they need not only to explain the value of business education, but also directly connect their planned educational experiences to likely real-world outcomes.

Over time, Heider plans to benchmark students' educational experiences against how well they demonstrate the six competencies that make up the Heider Mindset. Eventually, the college will connect the development of these hard-to-measure skills directly to their value in the labor market.

Linking Educational Experience to Professional Success

As the competitive landscape for MBA programs becomes more dynamic and complex, so too does the challenge of communicating the ROI of graduate business education. It’s one thing to track the starting salaries and job titles of students. It’s quite another to crack the code on how course-level experiences translate to job-ready skills.

“The theory behind the Heider Mindset is that we wanted to develop a distinctive point of view and philosophy around how a Creighton MBA can prepare students for a fast-changing world of work,” says Todd Darnold, associate dean of graduate and leadership programs at the Heider College of Business. “We wanted to be able to point to our alumni as living proof that the skills at the heart of the Heider Mindset equip our students for longevity in their careers. The next phase for us is about using data to understand how these skills and course-level experiences help graduates pack more of a career and economic punch as they navigate an uncertain labor market.”


Calvin McConnell, Director of Education Partnerships, AstrumUCalvin McConnell is director of education partnerships at AstrumU, a data services company based in Kirkland, Washington.