Higher ed MBA programs flex their muscle

B-schools boost online and part-time offerings to attract busy professionals

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series on b-school survival.

With the number of traditional MBA students dropping, business schools must get creative to survive and ultimately thrive. One major strategy is creating more robust offerings for part-time and online students for whom a traditional program presents an insurmountable opportunity cost—giving up their current job.

“Schools have always done as much as they possibly can to respond to those needs, but within the norms of higher education,” says Dan LeClair, chief strategy and innovation officer at AACSB International—The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Sidebar: Case study: Fox School of Business

In recent years, innovative business schools have shifted to more creative scheduling by removing some of the typical program requirements, such as 14-week semesters and a set number of credit hours.

Here’s how some b-schools are growing their enrollments, improving program quality and attracting more experienced students by rethinking the part-time MBA.

Focusing on real-time applications

The 800-plus online MBA students at the Carson College of Business at Washington State University don’t have to wait until they complete their degree to apply their learnings in the workplace, as is often the case with traditional full-time programs.

“The course material is not the main product,” says Cheryl Oliver, assistant dean of online and graduate programs. “The transformation of the student as a leader is now the main product.”

The online program, geared toward working professionals, launched in 2009 and continues to evolve as the nature of business changes. For instance, the college now delivers more content around how businesses use data analytics for strategic decision-making, says Oliver.

“MBA programs used to be more of a bubble,” LeClair adds. “Now they are much more connected to practice.”

Catering to professionals

Business school officials are retooling the curriculum to keep adult students’ busy schedules in mind.

“We spent time looking at the needs of industry as well as the needs and goals of prospective, part-time MBA students to see how we could better align our program offerings,” says Dawn Lerman, associate dean for graduate studies at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University in New York.

The new Professional MBA program launched this past fall with 31 students.

“We found that the typical part-time MBA student in our market is not necessarily a career switcher, which is what we see in full-time,” says Lerman. “Instead, they are moving up the corporate ladder within their own firm and seeking new challenges.”

As such, the program is 52 credits, versus 60 credits for the full-time MBA program.

“Part-time students are typically looking to go deeper in their current field,” says Lerman. They complete a small required core, and can then customize the rest of their program.

The rationale: They have more work experience, more exposure to business and a clearer sense of the need for their education today and tomorrow. Students also have more opportunities to learn outside of the classroom, including a global component that sends them abroad for a week.

Breaking with traditional models

The Fox School of Business at Temple University revamped its part-time program in 2015, essentially hybridizing it.

“The part-time program has seen 17 to 20 percent growth year over year because the programs now speak to that busy, working professional,” says Darin Kapanjie, the academic director of Fox’s online and part-time MBA programs, which serve over 1,000 students combined.

Students can choose to divide their time between classrooms and synchronous WebEx sessions. “It cuts down on travel time and students can take it from work,” says Kapanjie.

Format-wise, students are also not sitting down in a room listening to a faculty member lecture. “They are sitting with a team to solve a real business problem,” he says.

Such creativity and innovation is a trend because schools realize they can provide high-quality education in different types of environments, LeClair adds.

Keeping up with industry needs

“Business moves at a faster pace of change than is typically seen in academia, both in terms of how technology is shaping industries and careers, as well as globalization,” says Lerman. “We have to constantly update our courses and bring in new course offerings to keep pace.”

For b-schools aiming to stay competitive, expect innovations to continue, says LeClair. “The theme will be programs connecting more with practice, with other disciplines within the university, and with the communities they’re serving.”

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