Higher ed sees a rise in specialized MBA activity

Programs attract new kinds of students and meet industry needs

Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on b-school survival. Read Part 1.

Applications to full-time, two-year MBA programs in the U.S. have been down since 2014, and this past fall, 64 percent of programs reported declines, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s “Application Trends Survey Report 2017.”

To counter that, many business schools are adding multiple MBA programs covering specialized areas to expand their applicant pool.

Online exclusive: Intersecting business with technology

The trend has been prevalent in the last three to four years, with schools adding specializations and concentrations “to meet the needs of the community, the students and society,” says Steve Parscale, chief accreditation officer for the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs.

Unemployment is at record lows, which traditionally means a drop-off in MBA interest, Parscale adds. Specialized offerings are helping to mitigate that enrollment challenge.

Trend watch: Cohort learning

The MBA for Educators and Business of Medicine MBA programs at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business both run as single cohorts.

“In contrast to a traditional MBA program that needs to have large numbers to work, with specialized MBAs you can have a single cohort and not be worried about scale issues,” says Idalene Kesner, dean.

That’s because cohort programs, with their hands-on, team project-oriented structure, work better when class sizes are controlled.


Fulfilling the need for a more customized education

Specialized MBAs allow students to have a more “contextual learning experience,” says Idalene “Idie” Kesner, dean of the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

Its MBA for Educators and its Business of Medicine Physician MBA bring in professionals who don’t have a business background, but who aspire to administration positions in their fields. “These programs have opened up more avenues for us,” says Kesner. “This is a way of addressing what had been a relatively flat MBA market.”

Similarly, Clarion University of Pennsylvania in recent years has launched specialized MBA programs in Innovation and Entrepreneurship and in Healthcare, among others.

“These decisions were based on consultation with the board of advisors coupled with student and workforce demand,” says Phil Frese, dean of the College of Business Administration and Information Sciences.

Others adding MBA programs for those outside of traditional business fields include NYU Stern, which has two new one-year programs: a Tech MBA and a Fashion & Luxury MBA.

Trend watch: Cohort learning (cont.)

Other cohort-style specialized MBAs:

  • The Emerging Leaders MBA at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business is a full-time, one-year cohort program that targets recent graduates or those early in their career.
  • The Johnson Cornell Tech MBA takes a cohort through immersive studio projects that include solving technology problems and launching a startup.

Helping local business find qualified employees

Market research convinced Sellinger School of Business administrators at Loyola University Maryland to add MBA specializations in Data Analytics and in Investments and Applied Portfolio Management, says Susan Hasler, assistant dean for business programs.

“In speaking to alumni in Baltimore, we found employers want people who can analyze, and that data is something we need to be offering,” Hasler says. “We were already offering the courses, but now we’re marketing it as a full program.”

The Investments and Applied Portfolio Management MBA also gets more granular than a regular finance track would. “In recent years, we’ve had a growth in the number of students coming from investment firms who really wanted to learn a specific skill set for this industry,” says Hasler.

Both programs include experiential learning that allows students to consult for local businesses. The investment students even manage part of Loyola’s endowment fund, which saw a 20 percent return last year.  “These offerings make us more competitive,” says Hasler.

Add more specializations?

After launching its MBA concentrations, Clarion experienced a 7 percent growth in enrollment from fall 2015 to fall 2016. The incoming class for fall 2017 was up 8 percent from the year before, says Frese. “Nearly 10 percent of our new students are choosing concentration options as part of their MBA experience.”

Loyola is exploring other special-izations. “It’s a trend that’s going to continue,” Hasler says. “Students want to customize their program and dive in deeper to an area they are interested in.”

Parscale advises schools to take a quality-over-quantity approach. “Don’t change things to be competitive unless it’s part of your mission,” he says. “Once you get out of your specialty strength area, it’s like you’re adding water to your program and thinning it out—you don’t want to reduce the quality of the education.” 

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