The Many Flavors of the Region’s MBA Programs
In an ever-more-competitive career marketplace, educational degrees don’t always carry the weight they used to.
“At the turn of the 20th century, if a person had a high-school education, that was fantastic,” said Kathryn Carlson Heler, director of the MBA (master of Business Administration) program at Springfield College. “Remember, most people finished eighth grade and were out working at age 14.”
In the years following World War II, she explained, the G.I. Bill and other factors boosted college attendance, and a bachelor’s degree became the ticket to a secure career. But, in many cases, that’s not enough anymore.
“Most professionals now are saying, ‘hey, what’s the next step?’ And I think the master’s has become an important step — and who knows if it’s going to go further?” she said. “Look at nurses, for example; most of them have bachelor’s degrees, and some hospitals prefer to hire people with their master’s. And in the business world, the MBA has become the degree to have.”
Others who spoke with BusinessWest agree. “The MBA does carry an awful lot of weight in the workplace,” said Tom Barron, director of the MBA program at American International College. “It can affect opportunities for promotion, raises, and the like.
“The MBA allows you to really look at other aspects of a business, not just your own area of expertise,” he further explained. “You end up seeing how your area impacts the other areas of a business, so you’re a lot more comfortable developing company-wide solutions. Many people who get MBAs consider changing career fields, exploring areas they wouldn’t have been able to before, because they now have a wider cross-section of knowledge and expertise.”
Mo Sattar, who directs the MBA program at Bay Path College, is another believer in the strength of the degree.
“It helps to create leverage: how can I be a little bit better than the next person or the next business? Knowledge creates power,” he said. “I believe in teaching students how to learn, how to be life learners. That really matters, especially in the MBA world.”
For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest sits down with administrators from six area institutions — Western New England University, Elms College, and UMass Amherst are the others — to talk about the elements of a vibrant MBA program, and how the schools are tailoring their offerings to a very diverse group of degree seekers.
Some undergraduates intend to continue on to an MBA program right after finishing their bachelor’s degree, while many MBA students are longtime professionals returning to school to enhance their career prospects — and don’t necessarily have time to tackle a full-time course load or daytime classes. That’s why many colleges offer online courses, evening classes, or a blend of options.
For example, Springfield College’s 4+1 program “is an opportunity for our undergrads to stay a fifth year and earn their MBA,” Carlson Heler said. “What they do is take two classes in the summer after they earn their undergraduate degree and eight classes over the next two semesters.
“We have also attracted professionals from the community. Some of them have done the program in one year, working full-time and also going to school full-time,” she said. “But most of my professionals who join our program do it on a part-time basis, and do about two classes a semester.”
Similarly, the MBA program at UMass Amherst, part of its Isenberg School of Management, also stresses flexibility — to pursue a degree full-time on campus, completely online, or in a blended format at any satellite campus location.
Katherine Piedra, the director of the full-time program, has a unique perspective on that track, having graduated from it in 2004; now, she handles admissions, acceptance procedure, and operations, among other roles.
“The format hasn’t changed much from when I was here eight years ago,” she said, noting that most of the core coursework is completed during the first year, with field work highlighting the second year.
“We get a gamut of people, and we want a diverse class — not just in the traditional diversity sense, culturally, but across the board. We have about 35% international students in our class,” Piedra said.
Having both full-time and online options provides needed flexibility for the differing needs of students, she added. “The full-time program tends to have more people who are career changers. With the online program, it’s people who want their MBA to stay within their company, but want that boost. The online students tend to be older on average, too.”
She noted that, over the years, online degree seekers have multiplied, with a corresponding decline in those pursuing the full-time program. So the playing field has changed, with a lot more entrants into the online market.” Piedra said
Like most regional offerings, AIC’s MBA program can be finished in under two years, although some students, largely working professionals, may spread it out over three to five years, Barron said. “We have an interesting mix, with students coming from undergraduate programs as well as people who have been in the workforce 5, 10, 20-plus years.”
Western New England University also offers a blended online and evening degree program. “Right now, we primarily serve working professionals,” said Matthew Fox, director of Recruiting and Marketing for Graduate Studies and Adult Learning. “But the traditional student coming right out of college with a bachelor’s degree, that’s growing.”
This fall, WNEU will launch a full-time, accelerated day program in addition to its existing track. “We see that as a great opportunity to cater to a growing international student body,” Fox said. “They’re clearly looking for an experience where they can be immersed in their studies and have that continuous, face-to-face interaction with the faculty, as opposed to the existing model that blends online and in-classroom time.”
In any case, he added, “we emphasize to students, whether they’re traditional students or working professionals, they can accelerate their studies and finish the program in as little as a year, or they can take longer. It’s quite flexible.”
What’s Your Niche?
Students are also finding flexibility in the focus of the region’s various MBA programs.
For example, the Elms, which launched its MBA program only last year, offers three areas of study — health care leadership, accounting, and management — in a fast-track, hybrid format that pairs online and on-campus courses, said Kerry Calnan, director of the program.
“We’re the last to the market, and it’s a saturated marketplace,” she noted, adding that the school’s leaders took to heart a study conducted recently at Harvard called “Rethinking the MBA.”
“When we were getting ready to launch, we talked about the old-school model of MBA programs and how we needed to change if we wanted to add value, so that people who go through our program are valuable in the marketplace. We want to make sure we’re fitting what the market needs.”
In doing so, Elms staff interviewed some two dozen senior-level business leaders in the region and asked them what they’d like to see in an MBA program that they’re not getting from current MBA graduates.
“We developed our program by listening to what they had to say,” Calnan said, adding that the program taps area professionals to participate in course instruction, to lend more real-world credibility to the program. In fact, the five core courses in each track are delivered by a team comprised of an academic and a professional.
Springfield College, another recent entry into the MBA market with a program that started in 2010, offers two concentrations: one in for-profit management, and one in nonprofit management. The latter is attractive to people eyeing opportunities in health care, recreation, youth, the arts, sports, and as fund-development officers, to name just a few possible career tracks.
In both its general management and nonprofit concentrations, Springfield College offers a one-year, 30-hour degree program that’s tailored for professionals, Carlson Heler said.
“It’s a very doable degree; our classes are offered in the late afternoon and evening so that students can work during the day and take classes at night,” she noted. “And the size of our classes is very small, so students get to know their professors, and the professors get to know them.”
As with the Elms, it’s important that the SC program involve area professionals in the courses, “so students have an opportunity to tap into their experience.”
And the benefits of those exposures go both ways, Carlson Heler noted. One executive involved in the program told her, “‘I get to know the younger generation, and they will be my future employees — or, in some cases, my future boss. I get to know how they think and how they view the world, and it’s very important for me to have that opportunity.’
“I think it’s important.” she added, “that we reach out to the business and nonprofit community and ask them, ‘what should our students learn? What is important for them to be successful, and for your company or organization to have the best employees it can?’”
“AIC had the first MBA program in Western Mass.,” Barron said. “One thing that’s unique is our strong entrepreneurship program. In our capstone course, the final course, students are actually required to go through and develop a business plan they can use to start their own business.”
One theme that surfaced repeatedly in discussing area MBA programs is a focus on international business — reflective of what has become a global marketplace.
“Throughout the history of AIC and its MBA program, we have always had a strong international base in all key studies,” Barron said. “When we’re going through, asking about finance, economics, operations, we’re always going through what’s happening from a global perspective.”
That distinction has become crucial over the past two decades with the emergence of the Internet as a business tool, he added.
“If you look at a business that wants to operate out of a home, 20 years ago, the geographic area was the area around the house. Today, with the Internet, you’re literally doing business and delivering products around the world,” he noted. “So, how do we take this knowledge from all these subjects and not only apply it to local industry, but learn how to deal with it on a global basis?”
UMass provides overseas opportunities for its MBA students by means of exchange programs in Sweden, China, India, Brazil, Denmark, and South Korea.
“We’re working in a global economy,” Piedra said. “Anyone with international work experience in their MBA program has an edge going out into the work world, because of that experience working with people from other cultures and other countries.”
Sattar emphasized the way a strong MBA program “connects the dots” throughout the content, giving students a broad perspective on business.
“Our program starts with a business introduction where students learn about business models and strategy models and start to analyze some case studies and use analytical tools, like Excel,” he explained. Once students are grounded in that foundation, they move on to specifics like marketing, organizational behavior, business law and ethics, and the like, always being pushed to see the overlap between all of these disciplines.
“We learn about the important building blocks in business and how to connect them together, how to synthesize and optimize and maximize them,” Sattar said. “I find that, sometimes, people working in one area don’t understand what’s happening in the next cubicle or the next office.”
The idea, he said, is to produce professionals who understand the big picture within the company they work for — or, in many cases, who are able to launch their own enterprises.
“The value they get is not just that they truly understand marketing, finance, and legal issues,” he stressed. “The value is seeing how they are all connected. It’s more like a symphony than individual pieces of music, and the value comes in connecting everything together.”
That word ‘value’ was another concept that area administrators kept returning to.
“I’ve been working with the graduate office for approximately five years, and I have found that the number of students seeking their MBA has definitely increased, whether it’s for an entry-level position or to enhance their prospects within their organization, or even to secure their present job,” Fox said.
“I think the value of an MBA has held, and if anything, the interest has increased from students seeking their MBA. We’ve seen our enrollments more than double in the last four years. Yes, we’re dealing with smaller numbers than some other schools, but it’s significant for us. That, to me, is a positive sign.”
Even a recently established program like the one at Springfield College is reporting positive returns in the single most critical area — post-degree employment.
“In our first class, the class of 2011, all of my students found good jobs within six months,” Carlson Heler said. “With the class of 2012, half of them have jobs, and the other half are interviewing, and it looks really good.
“The jobs are out there,” she continued. “People talk about the economy, but my students are finding jobs — maybe not all in the Pioneer Valley, unfortunately, which we would love, but the jobs are definitely out there for the MBA graduates.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]