Are Alternative Programs at Prestigious Universities a Good Deal?

What is included in a school degree?
What is included in a school degree?

Frank Reynolds obtained an executive master's in technology management from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, home of one of the most prestigious business programs in the world.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Mr. Reynolds won a $66,000 judgment against the school. A jury found that the university had unjustly enriched itself by selling the program.

This was no quickie summer refresher course. According to the Inquirer, the technology management program "since 1998 had been cosponsored by Penn's School of Engineering and Applied Science and Wharton. The program leads to a master's in engineering degree from Penn and a certificate cosigned by the deans of the engineering school and of Wharton."

At the heart of the case seems to be this: Prestigious universities looking to leverage economies of scale and cash in on the cache of their brand often aggressively market alternative degree programs, luring in students who would generally not qualify for their more selective degree programs.

Are You an Alumnus, or Not?

According to the Inquirer, "Students who considered themselves part of Wharton, and who expected to be full-fledged Wharton alumni, were hearing something different, Reynolds and Heleniak said. Reynolds said he was even threatened with discipline for portraying himself as a Wharton student."

And therein lies the problem: These schools offer executive education programs to generate revenue -- but if students who graduate from these programs are able to represent themselves as "alumni" in the work world, they run the risk of diluting the value of the school's brand.

The takeaway for prospective students at any non-traditional program at any institution is this: Before you enroll or send any money, find out exactly what you're getting in terms of an affiliation with the school.

Whether you're enrolling in an executive education program at Wharton, or your high school student is considering a summer extension program at a prestigious school, ask: Will I be able to join the school's alumni association? How can I list my time at the school on a resume? Will I receive job-hunting help from the school's career services office? If not, you may be wasting your time -- and money.