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Mastering Business, Quickly

April 20, 2011

A one-year alternative to the M.B.A. may be taking off.

Consider Wake Forest University, whose one-year master’s of arts in management has grown from 13 students when it began five years ago to 96 this year. The program, which requires no previous work experience and aims to help students apply their liberal arts and sciences “passion” to business while teaching the technical knowledge that’s needed to do so, gives students a foot in the door while arming them with teamwork skills and cultural competence, to boot.

“Really, the purpose is to build a bridge from the liberal arts to a vocation,” said Steve Reinemund, dean of Wake Forest’s Schools of Business. Reinemund left the corporate world in 2007 as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. “Going back to my corporate experience, the big lack of skills that I found over my years was not in people that were technically capable, but in people who had global perspective, leadership ethics, the ability to lead and innovate. And that’s really what we’re trying to achieve here, by bringing students in and rounding them out from experiences they’ve already had.”

The idea has caught on at various colleges throughout the past decade or so. Similar programs have emerged at Duke and Vanderbilt Universities, and Claremont McKenna College.

Their growth does correspond to a general increase in business master’s programs generally. According to research from the Graduate Management Admission Council, the number of students who take the Graduate Management Admission Test intending to earn a master’s degree other than an M.B.A. has increased by an average rate of 16.6 percent annually since 2005-6, while the rate for those intending to earn an M.B.A. has increased only by 4.4 percent annually. (However, M.B.A. hopefuls still far outnumber the others: 160,209 test-takers were aiming for an M.B.A. in 2009-10 – the most recent year for which data are available – compared to 26,918 vying for a different master’s.)

Some of these students only want a year of business training, while others are open to coming back for more. “It’s a nice niche position to pursue a great population of students who tend to be outstanding in many ways and could make some very good business students,” said Jerry Trapnell, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer of AACSB International, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which accredits business programs. Many students who complete the one-year master’s programs return after a couple years of work experience with a leg up – the first half of their two-year M.B.A. is already done. (Some of the universities that offer these one-year programs have M.B.A. programs that allow for such re-entry.) “I just see it as one more piece of a very complex portfolio of degree programs that are offered in business,” Trapnell said. “This is a diverse landscape.”

At Wake Forest, as at similar programs, a high emphasis is placed on experiential learning and leadership and communication skills, as well as group work and competence in cultural diversity. Wake Forest's program attracts a diverse student body: 52 percent are women and about 56 percent are minority students. (The school's M.B.A. program is 33 percent female, with 15 percent international and 17 percent traditionally underrepresented minority students.) “We want the classroom to mirror the marketplace in its make-up,” Reinemund said. “We think that gives students a real sense of what it takes to lead.”

The program generally recognized as the first of this type originated at a different institution: the University of Florida. Its master of science in management program began about a decade ago. “Let’s say a student comes to college and he’s interested in doing something. He does not necessarily think about the job market,” said Selcuk Erenguc, associate dean and director of Florida’s Hough School of Business. “When he’s ready to graduate he looks around and says, ‘Well, maybe I should add to my marketability.’ This is an excellent option for those students.”

That’s the biggest reason students enroll in Florida’s program, which has grown from 35 students at its inception to more than 100 annually, Erenguc said. Some, upon graduating, opt to get a couple years of work experience under their belts and then return to finish their M.B.A.

That’s what Reyna Camps, a graduate of Wake Forest’s program, will probably do. She pursued the master’s in management to become more competitive. (Camps majored in biology at Stanford University before spending some time at a nonprofit, where she found people without a business background to be far less effective than their more experienced colleagues.) “There are a lot of really, really smart people out there who could do really well in business and contribute a lot. But it’s really hard to get your foot in the door,” Camps said. But for students who go through the master’s program, she said, “You do have the business background, but you also have these other varied interests. I don’t know if it makes you a better worker, but I think it makes you a stronger candidate.” (She also strongly believes that Wake Forest’s emphasis on group work and diversity played a large role in preparing her for her current job as a finance analyst for Frito-Lay in Texas.)

When Claremont McKenna started its master’s program in finance two years ago, there was – predictably – some resistance. Unlike Wake Forest and Florida, institutions with large business schools, Claremont McKenna prides itself on being a liberal arts college. “There’s obviously going to be friction” from faculty members concerned about professional programs detracting from the college’s liberal arts mission, said S. Brock Blomberg, dean of the Robert Day School of Economics and Finance. “It’s a difficult balance and there’s still a lot of concern over compromise in the current environment.” But, he said, the program is not intended as a substitute for an M.B.A., nor will it grow into one. While Claremont McKenna -- in conjunction with Claremont Graduate University -- does offer a combined bachelor of arts and M.B.A. program, students can’t opt for just the latter. “I think the intent was to give our students a leg up,” Blomberg said. “That’s what’s really key here. What we’re trying to do is split the baby, if you will. Give them some of what they’d get out of [business school] without sacrificing what is critical in the liberal arts aspect.”

Trapnell, of AACSB, said tension over business programs competing for students is natural, because the field tends to be popular. But as demand grows for these master’s degrees, if they succeed at good colleges, more institutions that are well-suited to start such programs could very well choose to do so. “We could see some modest growth if indeed a school is positioned well, has the capacity to do it, and can invest in it initially – get it up and running,” Trapnell said. But, he added, “That’s a challenge for schools right now, unless there’s clear evidence that the revenue upside is going to pay for it.”

 

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