Inside Corporate Universities

Business-led education programs: a growing trend

By Jenni Valentino, Staff Writer

Corporate universities – educational programs run by organizations looking to train employees for their specific industries – have existed for decades. However, the sheer number of corporate universities that have cropped up over recent years –
from just 400 in 1993 to more than 2,000 (including those run by Walt Disney, Pixar and Boeing) in 2001 – indicate that more and more corporations and businesspeople are taking their employees’ education into their own hands in response to the failings of traditional colleges and universities.

Some suggest that traditional business programs (graduate programs in particular) are providing a smaller and smaller return on investment. As a result, these increasingly abundant corporate universities pose a true threat – a threat that wasn’t there, say, 20 years ago.

Forbes contributor Doug Guthrie makes his opinion clear in the title of his January 2013 piece “Corporate Universities: An Emerging Threat to Graduate Business Education.” He expands on this idea by stating that these institutions “pose a greater threat today to higher education because they are a response to academia’s deficits.”

As Guthrie states, these training programs are succeeding because they focus “so exclusively and aggressively on the human resource needs of their own companies and industries.” The response to the failings of traditional programs by taking education local is impressive. But is it truly threatening to, say, Harvard University’s MBA program? Perhaps.

Although students and employers alike are beginning to see “beyond the ivy” and past prestigious university names, reputation is still extremely important when it comes to how employers view their prospective employees. Thus, one of Guthrie’s primary examples – McDonald’s Hamburger U, founded in 1962 – doesn’t seem to hold water as a true threat. Maybe Guthrie is correct and now, as traditional universities seem to be collapsing from the inside out, is the perfect time for Hamburger U to finally take down traditional graduate education. But it doesn’t seem likely.

Hamburger U is an extreme example. Let’s look at one program that does have the reputation to make a difference: the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN). Founded by Joshua Rosenthal, an entrepreneur with no prior business experience, IIN has offered holistic nutrition education since 1992. Promising students a career in a year, the world’s largest nutrition school has produced 20,000 certified health coaches worldwide and continues to grow exponentially each year.

According to information provided by IIN in a February 2013 article, their reputation is legitimate:

  • Seventy percent of students launch a health coaching practice while still a student
  • Of these students, 69 percent begin working with clients in a six-month program before graduation
  • Sixty-nine percent make an income through health coaching while still in school
  • Twenty-five percent charge $100/hour

Just 10 weeks into her 40-week program, IIN student Jenni Gill is confident that IIN will lead her into the health coaching career she desires. 

“I feel pretty confident based on conversations I’ve had with other current students and recent graduates. They have been able to make their way into the health coaching business post-graduation by giving speaking engagements and taking on clients. One current student mentioned the program to her chiropractor, who decided that he would love to have a health coach in his practice. As soon as she gets her certification, she’s going to partner with her chiropractor.”

Gill chose to enroll in IIN’s yearlong program after years of interest in nutrition and the effects of food on one’s health and general well-being.

“I actually started out considering a more formal dietician program at a traditional university, but was wary of returning to academia as an adult. Traditional nutrition programs are very heavy in chemistry and sciences, which kind of turned me off – the thought of going back to school and having to go through chem lab again,” she said. “Then I found the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, which teaches over 100 dietary theories. The idea is that there are all sorts of diets out there and that what works for one person may not work for another person. Their intent is to teach you about different kinds of diets, how they can affect people and the details of each. They focus less on the hard science of it all and more on the practical application to daily life.”

Rosenthal teaches at the school alongside well-known health and wellness experts, including Deepak Chopra, Barry Sears and Andrew Weil. IIN’s brick and mortar school is located in the Flatiron District of New York City, but the school enrolls many of its students via mobile lecture hall, a revolutionary classroom app installed on the student’s Apple device. This is how Gill receives her instruction.

“It’s been great,” Gill said. “All of the lectures are preloaded into your app, and every week your new module becomes available. The modules include video and audio lectures which average between two and four hours every week. I love having instruction on the Apple device. I have it on my iPhone, and I have it on my iPad. I can prop it up in the kitchen and watch video lectures while I’m cooking, have it sitting on the floor next to me when I’m folding laundry, or listen to audio lectures while I’m running. As someone with two small children, being able to listen to the lectures while I’m going about my daily life is very helpful. I haven’t had any issues with the app. It functions well, and the videos all load quickly.”

For those concerned about the lack of face-to-face interaction afforded by attending school online, IIN provides connection opportunities between students and instructors.

“There is a Facebook group for all of the current students in the programs, so you’re able to interact with other students and staff on that page,” Gill said. “You’re also assigned to a small group of approximately 12, including someone who has already gone through the program and is actively working as a health coach as your leader. There are conference calls every other week where you can discuss things with your coach and the other students. It’s a more personalized, small-group environment where you’re really talking to the other students. The instructors also have online office hours where they’re committed to being on Facebook, so you can have an IM conversation or set up a one-on-one call outside of the schedule if you need assistance.”

The Institute for Integrated Nutrition’s delivery methods don’t necessarily set it apart from traditional education programs these days, as more and more undergraduate and graduate programs have started offering online degree completion. So, beyond the extremely focused subject matter, how does IIN differ from a traditional college or university?

“You have to make the effort to get out of it what you want to get out of it because you’re not being tested on minutiae like you are in a traditional university,” Gill said. “Beyond that, though, the lectures are pretty much what you would picture from a traditional college.”

At a time when law degrees, business degrees and sundry other graduate programs are increasingly viewed as little more than a way to rack up debt and avoid the disappointing employment market for a few more years, what sets programs like these apart?

“I think these programs serve a different population. While they have the potential to overlap with MBA programs, a lot of the people enrolled in IIN are older, in their 30s or 40s, and looking to change careers. It’s not a lot of people right out of high school or college wanting to go to nutrition school or business people looking to advance in the career they have.”

For Gill, choosing to enroll in IIN over a traditional nutrition science program was the right choice, even though job posting boards aren’t necessarily full of empty health coach positions.

“Based on anecdotal evidence, if you’re willing to put in the work, network and put yourself out there, a lot of opportunities will open up. It’s about networking and making your own opportunities with the support and education from IIN behind you, and there definitely seems to be a need for it.”

Jenni Valentino is a freelance writer and editor with years of involvement and experience in the career college sector. She can be reached at

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