After decades of consistency, business school curriculum is getting a twist. Demand for more flexibility from students and for technology-based skills from employers is spurring schools to increase the number and variety of MBA and related programs they offer.
"There is a lot of disruption in the market," said Caryn Beck-Dudley, dean of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. "There is an enormous amount of change, and it's happening very quickly."
The change is driven by a shrinking applicant pool; general wariness of tuition increases among prospective college students; and a growing focus on a more diverse stream of recruits and professionals that want to upskill.
In response, business schools are narrowing degrees to focus on a particular industry or aspect of business and taking some programs fully or partially online. They also are offering shorter-term credentials in specific skills, some of which can stack into certificates or degrees, said Beck-Dudley, who was dean at two other business schools and chair of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
Below, we examine four ways business programs are changing their curricula to attract more students.
More business schools are offering programs in specialties that can help a candidate stand out in the job market.
While applications to business master's degrees decreased slightly from 2017 to 2018, those for more focused programs in management, finance and data analytics increased, although they are far fewer in number than general programs, according to an annual survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).
The latter posted the biggest gain, up 32% with 12,667 applications across 24 programs in 2018, according to GMAC data. Research shows more companies are using data analytics, resulting in more open jobs in the field. Management master's programs rose roughly 3% to 7,834 applications for 22 programs. General business master's, meanwhile, fell less than one percentage point for the period to 64,667 applications for 207 programs.
"There is a lot of disruption in the market. There is an enormous amount of change, and it's happening very quickly."
Dean, Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business
"We are seeing dramatic growth in specialized master's degree programs, with enrollments up more than 30% in the last five years," said Michael Wiemer, senior vice president and chief officer for the Americas at AACSB. "Business schools are meeting the specific demands of a rapidly changing global economy."
The University of Miami's (top image) business school is banking on its one-year specialized master's programs in areas such as finance, analytics, sustainable business and health administration. Miami Business School Dean John Quelch told Education Dive earlier this year that its analytics program had 95 students during this past year, up from 45 the year prior.
It's not alone. The University of Vermont's Grossman School of Business earned recognition for its MBA in sustainable innovation. And Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business in December announced it will offer a full-time MBA combining business and computer science.
Business schools also are changing the structure of graduate programs, Beck-Dudley said, including collapsing and combining traditional year-long core courses to cover topics such as finance, marketing and business communications more efficiently and in ways that reflect current business trends.
Santa Clara University, for example, offers a course called "Doing Business in Silicon Valley," which includes that kind of information in the context of the regional business ecosystem.
"We've learned you probably don't need a year of lectures about corporate governance," Beck-Dudley said, noting that such a change makes time for students to take more electives or finish their degrees faster.
Market perception of formal master's degree is also shifting due to growing interest in lifelong learning and a rapidly expanding supply of short courses, certificates and other credentials in business topics, AACSB's Wiemer said.
Northeastern, for instance, offers graduate certificates in more than a dozen areas, including traditional subjects such as marketing and business administration, as well as emerging topics like innovation management and technological entrepreneurship.
"Business schools are meeting the specific demands of a rapidly changing global economy."
Senior vice president and chief officer for the Americas, AACSB
Cross-disciplinary collaboration between business schools and other academic domains such as computer science and engineering, as well as deeper engagement with industry, are also becoming part of the business education landscape, according to Wiemer.
"The emerging demand is for shorter, condensed and highly relevant offerings offered in a variety of convenient formats," he said.
These changes are also helping business schools address prospective students' concerns over cost and the need to take out loans, which GMAC said in a 2018 report are major deterrents to graduate business education. After all, a certificate in business administration might cost as little as $5,000 at a major university, while MBAs can run more than $200,000, TheStreet reported.
Online, part-time and not
Business schools are finding that nontraditional students need programs that meet their work and lifestyle needs, said Wally Hopp, associate dean for the part-time MBA at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, which is adding an online option this fall.
"When we wanted to improve our offerings and talked to alumni and undergrads who weren't coming back, they told us we didn't have a program that was flexible enough for them," he said. "There was a demand out there, but we weren't meeting it."
Michigan and other colleges are more often offering students a blend of online and face-to-face instruction, Hopp said, and part-time and one-year programs are gaining popularity among students who are, or will be, working while enrolled. Some institutions, like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are going so far as to drop their campus-based MBA program altogether in favor of online study.
GMAC data shows, however, that about 72% of prospects who prefer an MBA and 84% who prefer a business master's want to attend full-time. Of both groups, around 90% of respondents said they want some or all of that instruction to occur in the classroom. Among prospective part-time MBA and master's students, just over half prefer all or some of the instruction to be classroom-based.
As a result, Hopp said, colleges need to be nimble.
To recruit students, business schools are changing more than what they teach. A growing number have obtained STEM designations for their degrees, which can let foreign graduates extend their stay in the U.S., Wiemer said.
International students earning STEM degrees can stay in the U.S. and work for two years after graduation through the Optional Practical Training program, rather than just one for non-STEM graduates. The option caused the number of foreign STEM graduates in the U.S. to climb from 2004 to 2016, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The University of Rochester has staff members focused on obtaining the optional designation for its programs, including those in business fields, Forbes reported. Around eight in 10 U of Rochester MBA graduates had STEM designated degrees in 2019, of which more than half were international students, according to the publication.
MBA programs also are recruiting more broadly to attract students from nontraditional backgrounds and in new ways, including with the offer of more supports to help liberal arts majors succeed, The Wall Street Journal reported last summer.
Recruiting was listed as the second-biggest challenge for business schools globally in a 2017 report from the United Kingdom-based Association of MBAs. It found they were spending a third of their marketing budgets on social media.
Beck-Dudley said they've had to be much more savvy about recruitment, describing a media account of an MBA prospect investigating several programs armed with a tally of scores across dozens of attributes — from the industries graduates were hired into to the number of coffee shops near campus.
"It's a big challenge when you are up against a spreadsheet like that," she said.