Writing on the Wall for Future of M.B.A. Programs?

Potential changes at University of Wisconsin at Madison prompt discussion about future of a degree program once seen as secure.

October 23, 2017
Wisconsin's business school

Feeling changes in the M.B.A. market, the University of Wisconsin at Madison is considering changes to its M.B.A. program that would “increase accessibility, flexibility” and be “responsive to the changing needs of students and employers.”

That was the message delivered in a vague statement posted by the School of Business Friday, and -- as business schools across the country shake up their M.B.A. programs -- it leaves more questions than answers.

The Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel was unable to shake out any details of what those changes might mean, although a source told The Wall Street Journal that full-time M.B.A. programs might be coming to an end -- a trend that Virginia Tech, the University of Iowa and Wake Forest University, among others, have picked up on already -- in favor of shorter, more specialized programs.

Corroborating the Journal’s source was an email sent to students Wednesday -- cited by Poets & Quants, an outlet that specializes in business schools -- in which Donald Hausch, associate dean for M.B.A. programs, said shutting down the full-time program was seriously being considered. Students were invited to a town hall meeting this week, and a faculty vote on the matter is expected in November.

Wisconsin's announcement noted that the executive and part-time M.B.A. programs would continue to be offered. That news comes as Washington University in St. Louis recently reined in its executive M.B.A. program, moving to close branch offerings in Denver and Kansas City, Mo. The executive M.B.A. program still has international branch offerings, but the move to scale back the domestic program was seen as result of a multitude of factors chipping away at the executive M.B.A. market, and the M.B.A. market as a whole: employers reluctant to pay, the proliferation of online courses and what some are saying is a declining interest in M.B.A. programs from U.S. students.

At Madison, those factors might be aligning to mean an end of the full-time M.B.A. program. It wouldn’t be the first time a business school took that route: in August, the University of Iowa announced that its full-time program was being cut, to focus on specialized degrees -- which is what the Journal reported could possibly happen in Madison.

In addition to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, Simmons College has also closed its full-time M.B.A. program. In light of the news from Madison, a Fortune article published Friday attempted to explain “what’s killing U.S. business schools,” citing declining applications across the board and increased applications to legacy institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and the University of Chicago. Indeed, no one is predicting the demise of full-time M.B.A. programs at the most elite universities. In addition, Fortune cited stats showing a declining interest in U.S. M.B.A. programs from foreign students and climbing student loan debt as factors shaking up business schools.

"The [Wisconsin] program may become the latest casualty in a string of closures of M.B.A. programs around the country," the report read.

Still, Poets and Quants called Wisconsin’s move a surprise, although it noted a drop in the business school’s rankings, according to U.S. News & World Report, and weak marketing and promotion of the program in recent years. The analysis was bleak.

“The fact that the proposal to close down the program is now public may very well make it a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the Poets & Quants article said. “This is a critical time for candidates to apply to M.B.A. programs, and the news is likely to dampen any enthusiasm left for applying to a program that may not be around in the near future.”

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Nick Roll

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