What elite universities can learn from high fashion
Sears sells men's shirts by with the once-famous Pierre Cardin label, for as low as $17.99.  

Harvard Business School is launching an online program today. And , no, you’re not going to be able to get your MBA for free.

The school is rolling out something it calls HBX Core. For $1,500, students take three basic business classes. The program is being billed as a pre-MBA.

And it's the latest attempt by an elite university to open up classes to more people—without diluting its brand. It’s a trick the fashion industry has gotten very good at over the years. 

You may not remember French designer Pierre Cardin. But in the '60s and '70s, his name was synonymous with very high fashion. Models in Vogue posed in his futuristic dresses. He dressed The Beatles.

These days, you can walk into Sears and find Pierre Cardin men’s shirts stacked on a table. Poly-cotton blends; marked down to $17.99.

You see, Cardin's haute- couture was not his only claim to fame. He was also the first high-end designer to expand his brand to the masses. Over the years, he put his name on everything, from baseball caps to toilet-seat covers.

“He took a very powerful, designer, marquee brand and diluted it to the point it had no value and no meaning,” said Mark Cohen, a professor of retail marketing at Columbia Business School.

This is the stuff of nightmares for elite universities. The fate they want to avoid: Becoming the Pierre Cardin of colleges.

Turns out, the challenges in fashion and education are similar. How to expand without losing what makes Versace, Versace, Gucci, Gucci and Harvard, Harvard?

“The parallels hold up,” said Cohen, “They have to retain their exclusivity and retain the basis through which they are held to be elite.”

“There are colleges that are very concerned about diluting their brand,” said Ben Wildavsky, director of Higher Ed studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. 

It’s not only going online that has schools nervous. “Just the idea of setting up a campus in a different country where you give degrees is something that places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton worry about a lot,” Wildavsky said.

Part of the value of top-tier degrees is that they’re exclusive. They’re expensive.

Elite schools can’t afford to hurt their relationships with past and future students by becoming common.

But, schools like Harvard also need to grow.

“Our mission at Harvard Business School is to train and educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” said Bharat Anand, a professor the B-School and faculty chair of the new HBX program, “It would be a perfect coincidence if there were only 900 individuals every year who fell into this category and could come to our physical campus.”

He says there are a ton of talented students out there whom Harvard’s not reaching.

Enter: the new pre-MBA. Online.

Just as Donna Karan has DKNY, Michael Kors has MICHAEL, and Marc Jacobs has Marc by Marc Jacobs, Harvard has HBX. 

Yes, HBX, is more accessible than a Harvard MBA.

But it's not free like many other online offerings. The tab for three courses is $1,500. And the payoff is a certificate, not Harvard course-credit.

 It’s a little like a silver necklace from Tiffany. No diamond ring, but it still comes in the blue box.

“We’re not offering any of our MBA courses online,” said Anand, “This is an entirely new program to an entirely new group of participants.”

The plan is for HBX to expand beyond intro business classes. But, as it does, it runs another risk familiar to retail. That customers will trade down. That the new product will cannibalize the older brand -- a problem Dolce & Gabanna, for instance, ran into with its D&G line. 

For business schools, this could mean students abandoning another huge profit center: executive education.

The stakes for schools to get this right are high. “Hundreds of millions of dollars for each elite business school,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor at Wharton. “In particular there are tens of millions of dollars in the executive education and continuing education space, and I think that’s what people fear first.” 

He says about a fifth of Wharton’s revenue comes from executive education programs. It makes up a quarter of Harvard Business School’s revenue.

The fear is that companies will tell their execs “to go online instead.”

So far, Emanuel said, that’s not happening at Wharton. People are choosing traditional schools over online classes. “Obviously there will be some challenge going forward differentiating them and making the value of each clear to people.”

It’s a tightrope luxury retail has been walking for a long time.

The goal for elite colleges is not to wind-up with their brand-name products wadded in the sale bin.

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