Fast track business degrees

Many technology execs want entry-level IT employees to hit the ground running, with concrete skills for real IT work. And they often don’t see that in college grads, who typically require on-the-job training or additional certification from vocational technical schools. “Colleges are doing a poor job of preparing workers,” says Coy Thorp, network systems architect at life-sciences database developer MDL Information Systems.

That’s because a combination of current technical skills and business-oriented thinking is in demand. IT managers want employees who can communicate well, think critically and work in a multicultural world, says Don Miklas, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) director of continuing education.

Businesses have a strong need for employees who can “apply all technology to solve business problems,” says Margaret Asida, IBM Corp.’s director of corporate university relations. IBM hires several thousand new graduates each year for jobs such as testing and code development but finds that most don’t have any business skills, she notes.

To fill the skills gap, enter Northface University (which also owns the business-oriented Morrison University in Reno, Nev.), one of the latest organizations to try to offer both real-world IT experience and a liberal arts context that enterprises are increasingly demanding.

Accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, which tends to validate smaller business and trade schools, Northface began offering classes this past winter for a bachelor of science degree in computer science that students can earn in 28 months, saving them at least a year compared to traditional degree programs. That cuts students’ tuition costs considerably versus the costs of other private universities, and it gets them into the job market faster.

For example, Northface charges approximately US$60,000 for a program that lasts slightly more than two years. Compare that to Boston-based Northeastern University’s nearly $134,000 price tag for its five-year program. To help keep on schedule, all Northface students take the same set of computer science and certification classes, electing only a few general education classes.

It’s not just an education; it’s a job: Northface students attend classes seven hours a day five days a week. To gain both current technical and business-thinking skills, students work on actual software projects for IBM, Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Unisys Corp. In the process, they get real-world experience and the possibility of job references upon graduation. Students attend class five days a week for seven hours a day — a tough workload that leaves little time for family, social life or part-time work.

Northface is not alone in trying to merge the real IT world with the world at large. Northeastern’s five-year course of study includes paid internships at local enterprises, where students do work on real IT projects. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers a similar five-year program as an option to its traditional four-year computer science degree. And the recently established Olin College of Engineering requires its computer science and engineering students to take business and marketing classes, and to work on real IT projects.

But in the drive to focus their curricula on more technical and business skills, educators need to be careful not to throw out the liberal arts side. “(Liberal arts) education is broader; it helps you adapt and be more flexible. You need to blend both things,” says Rob Carter, executive vice-president and CIO of FedEx Corp. Furthermore, recent studies show a strong link between productivity and level of education, the IEEE’s Miklas notes.

Does everyone need a liberal arts education to gain communications, flexible-thinking and problem-solving skills? Not necessarily. “Some people can be fairly well-rounded without taking liberal arts classes,” says Phil Skinner, director of enterprise services at the Ohio State University Medical Center. For those who need classes that teach communication, problem-solving and other in-demand skills, Northface aims to fill that educational void. University CEO H. Scott McKinley hopes to replicate his fast-track computer-science program by creating a network of similar schools.

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