Big changes are afoot at business schools as they juggle the evolving needs of businesses and students while still trying to prove that the investment in a costly degree will pay off. These needs are driving innovation at business schools, which are transforming what it means to get an MBA.
Classroom rigidity is out. In its place are semicustomized degrees, and a mix of online studies and in-person discussion. Business schools are minimizing case studies and emphasizing experiential learning. Schools now teach students how to start their own businesses, though some aspiring entrepreneurs opt to start out in the corporate world to pay off MBA debt, business school leaders say.
“Business school is all about constant change and improvement and response to the market,” said Elissa Sangster, executive director of the Forte Foundation, a nonprofit consortium of companies and business schools supporting women’s access to business education. “It’s always good to look for the next thing to produce better future leaders.”
Said Stuart Kaplan, president of career-development firm Knightsbridge USA and a former chief operating officer at executive search firm Korn Ferry: “The days of the five-year strategic plan are over. … The new normal is now tremendous volatility and uncertainty. Leaders in the workforce … who take accountability for the results” are what’s required.
Businesses are facing unprecedented changes from the effect of technology on how to please and retain customers, and they want leaders who can be thoughtful but decisive. And business schools face challenges from a changing economy that’s inspiring innovation and entrepreneurialism and producing company founders who feel they don’t need advanced business degrees.
The Graduate Management Admission Council reported in its 2013 application trends survey a five-year “softening in application volumes” in professional MBA programs. Those include part-time, flexible, online and executive MBA programs that primarily serve working professionals. The council said its 2014 survey will come out late this month.
Business schools are responding with more degree concentrations, such as master’s in accounting or logistics or in newer fields such as sustainability or data analytics, said John Byrne, editor in chief of Poets and Quants, which covers elite business school education.
“These specialty degrees basically allow (students) to get a job and perform on day one,” he said.
Many of these degree concentrations are easily attainable in one-year programs, especially for MBA students who already have business undergraduate degrees, he said. Interest in one-year programs is growing as some students question whether they can stay out of the workforce for two years.
Betsy Ziegler, associate dean of MBA programs and dean of students at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said the school is increasing enrollment in its one-year MBA program.
Yet she emphasized that the program is for students who aren’t looking to change careers, because it offers no internship.
“If (they) want to do a big career shift, we would counsel them to apply to the two-year program,” Ziegler said.Online learning remains a growing option. Indiana University and the University of Florida are among schools offering online MBA degrees.
Many Chicago-area programs offer a mix of classroom and online learning. Clifford Shultz, Charles H. Kellstadt Chair and professor at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business, cautions students who may seek a strictly online experience.
“Technology can complement the human dynamic, but the face-to-face, the interaction before and after class are vital,” he said. “I think we’ll find out five, 10, 20 years down the line that anyone who completed a higher degree online is not going to be competitive in the marketplace, because it doesn’t replicate what we do in the classroom or fieldwork.”
Entrepreneurship courses are popular with students, even if only about 5 percent of graduates immediately start businesses, Byrne said. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and NU’s Kellogg School, two of the top schools in the country, have invested heavily in this area, he added.
Experiential learning and entrepreneurship are closely tied with students’ growing interest in how businesses can have a positive effect. Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of the master of international business program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, said these are important changes to MBA programs, which he said had become over-reliant on case studies and quantitative models. He said schools need to create ethical managers who understand the nuances of businesses that surround them.
Students entering now are interested in the effect business has on society and the role it may play in the public sector, he said. “These are very notable and highly desirable changes in the business school curriculum,” Chakravorti said.
Universities are also changing how they offer career services and are going beyond job placement. Hassan Akmal, director of business career services at Loyola’s Quinlan, said students are offered mentoring with alumni who provide feedback on resumes or mock interviews and other support. The new model of career services helps them on a career path and some self-discovery, Akmal said.
Kellogg’s Ziegler said career management is about supporting “students on the first step of their journey (in MBA school) and through their entire career.”