The demand for M.B.A. degrees has clearly weakened in recent years, even at elite institutions that were previously seen as impervious to the ebbs and flows of the market. The Graduate Management Admission Council’s latest survey, released in early October, shows another year of declining applications to M.B.A. programs. While most institutions are saying that they can still seat highly qualified classes, we are also seeing institutions shutting down their programs entirely.
There are a number of reasons behind declining interest in what was once the silver-bullet credential for those interested in business careers. They include a disinclination to take on additional student loans, the continued strength of the job market and the willingness and ability of employers to provide just-in-time, targeted training that can replace large swaths of the M.B.A. curriculum. At the same time, institutions are struggling with the expense of such programs once viewed as powerful revenue generators that now aren’t performing as expected.
This trend is concerning, and those who follow business education have been warning of an “M.B.A. bubble” for several years. But I’ve yet to see any truly bold proposals to respond to the declining interest in the M.B.A. and still prepare students for what the job market needs. This is an opportunity those of us who educate undergraduate and graduate business students should seize to reconsider what the future workforce really needs and the best ways in which we can provide it. At a time when we can’t possibly predict what the market will demand in five, 10 or 15 years, how can we best prepare our students to navigate the work of the future?
In my nearly 30 years as a professor of accounting at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio, I’ve played a role in educating thousands of young women and men who have gone on to lives of great professional success and personal meaning. Over the last two years, I’ve served as dean of the school and had the privilege of a bird’s-eye perspective on our entire business school experience. What I can see is that we best prepare our students when we push them away from specializing too early and toward developing adaptable skills sets that will serve them across the span of their career.
In fact, if I could wave a magic wand and reshape undergraduate business education, I would remove majors altogether, giving students a four-year experience very similar to what we at the Farmer School offer our incoming students through our first-year integrated core: a broad grounding in what business tells us they need most. Business education serves the field best when we produce graduates who can think critically, creatively and conceptually; can understand coding and computational work; can communicate effectively; and can thrive in a constantly changing environment. This broad approach was exactly what prepared Kevin Mueller, a Farmer School marketing graduate and now a sales executive at Twilio, a cloud-based communications platform, to pick up the skills he needed to be able to succeed in his highly technical role forecasting revenue.
I can hear the questions from my colleagues already. But if we don’t offer majors in accounting or marketing or finance, how can we possibly say we’re preparing students for the workforce? How can our students receive the specialized subject-matter knowledge they need to pursue a path as an accountant, a marketer or a finance professional?
My response: What if we took the opportunity to step back from our traditional approach to graduate business education and instead shift toward an array of certificates and specialty master’s degrees? Certificates indicating a specific skill or content mastery or a one-year degree program would reduce debt for students and costs to institutions, build on the adaptable skill sets business students received during their undergraduate years, and provide the specialized skill sets they need for the path they wish to pursue. In many cases, a student may be able to combine the undergraduate degree and a variety of certificates or a specialized graduate degree in four years.
The Farmer School of Business is offering, or plans to offer, a number of new business graduate degree option and certificates. We currently award undergraduates a number of specialty certificates in areas such as coding and entrepreneurship. Beginning in the fall, we plan to offer several new graduate certificates in areas such as data analytics and business management, the latter pending final approval from the state. Already most of our master’s in accountancy students are completing their undergraduate and graduate degree in four years. Our one-year master’s degree in economics offers students the subject-matter expertise they need to skill up in advance of a job change.
For example, Charlotte Smith used the program to build on her Xavier University coursework in economics and provide the specialization she needed to change jobs and career paths. Previously an HR team lead at Target, Smith is now rising fast at Worldpay, a global payment-processing company where she serves as director of sales process, global e-commerce. In the near term, we will also begin offering a program of stackable certificates that lead to a master’s in business analytics and a master’s in management designed for non-business undergraduates.
As I prepare to retire next year, I’m acutely aware of the responsibility and the privilege that we as educators have to train the next generation of leaders. I’m hopeful that my colleagues at institutions across the country will join me in emphasizing thoughtful preparation of how to best add value to students pursuing business careers. Following that path will lead us to students who graduate with manageable debt, marketable skills and the subject-matter expertise that positions them well in the market, wherever the market goes.