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Dual Degrees: For MBAs, the Road Not Taken

(Corrects headquarters location for Starz Media in 26th paragraph.)

After a sex abuse scandal rippled through the Catholic Church, Boston College’s Carroll School of Management wanted to make a positive change. The school introduced a dual-degree program that coupled an MBA with a master’s in pastoral ministry. The goal was to promote transparency and human resource prowess at the highest ranks of religious institutions. Only one graduate has emerged from the program since it started in 2006. Even so, administrators consider it a success.

“It’s a small contribution and certainly not a far-reaching one,” says Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at the Jesuit university. “It is at least raising the conversation and alerting people to the need for good management.”

When it comes to rolling out dual-degree programs, business schools appear to be defying the laws of supply and demand. Dual MBA degree tracks have proliferated widely, giving rise to unexpected combinations such as the Boston College program, New York University’s MBA with a master of fine arts degree in film production, and Yale’s MBA pairing with a master’s in architecture.

Despite the explosive growth in dual tracks, very few students enroll in them. The greater number of options means more applicants must decide if they are best suited for a specialized dual degree, another masters degree program, or a regular MBA. Business schools, on the other hand, make the case that even though few MBA students enroll in dual-degree programs, the offerings provide additional educational options for students, help distinguish the school, and strengthen its ties with industry.

“For us, it’s not a strategy for growing but a strategy for increasing quality,” says Jeffrey Ringuest, Carroll’s associate dean for graduate programs.


The number of dual MBA degrees available has surged 54 percent over the past decade. Yet the portion of MBA students enrolled in dual-degree tracks has never risen above 1 percent, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which started collecting dual-degree enrollment data in 2005. In fact, that percentage has shrunk, from about 0.9 percent of MBA students in 2005-06 to 0.7 percent in 2010-11.

When compared with regular MBAs, dual-degree candidates don’t always see a higher return on their investment, according to data collected by PayScale, which gathers information from online pay-comparison tools. While adding an MBA increases the earning power of a non-MBA degree, adding a non-MBA degree may not increase the earning power of an MBA. In fact, only dual MBAs with a masters in engineering or a JD (the Juris Doctor law degree) had higher median salaries ($105,000 and $104,000, respectively) when compared with regular MBAs ($82,000). Those who had an MBA and a master’s degree in public health had a median salary of $81,500, and those with a master’s in education, $64,100. The PayScale sample was based on graduates with a total of seven to nine years of work experience and was collected from November 2009 to 2011.

Since dual-degree programs typically take anywhere from an additional semester to an additional year to complete, the cost of such programs is higher, and the true return on investment may be even less than the salary figures would suggest.

“I think it is challenging, if not impossible, to make an economic case for getting both degrees,” says Andrew Allison, who graduated with a JD-MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2010. “That’s not the way I was thinking about it.”


Allison was working in New York City public schools when an interest in law drew him to graduate school in 2006. With analytic business skills becoming more critical for careers in many industries, Allison also decided to pursue an MBA. “I concluded that getting two degrees vs. getting one might not have a measureable impact on my earnings potential,” he says. “But it would have a measureable impact on my ability to make a contribution.”

Allison intended to practice law after graduation, but he changed course completely during his final year at Stanford. He serendipitously met a student with similar interests, and they founded the company Main Street Hub, which manages the social media presences of small businesses. The company has since expanded to 50 employees.

“It would be disingenuous if I applied some grand unified theory of how I got here,” Allison says. “It was a gradual process that led to discovery after discovery, but the law degree has been helpful because it instilled an analytical way of thinking that helps me in day-to-day decisions all the time.”

Allison notes that the added MBA was what opened him up to other career possibilities.


How can applicants determine whether they match up best with a dual-degree MBA program, another master’s degree, or a regular MBA with a certain industry focus?

“A lot of it is asking applicants what their career goals are. What do they see themselves doing the next five, seven, or 10 years?” says Mary Somers, an MBA admissions officer at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, which offers a number of dual-degree programs, including a combined MBA and MPH, or master’s in public health. If applicants see themselves practicing a craft over the long haul and not moving into a management position, “then why do the MBA track?” she says.

Often, dual-degree MBA programs attract students who are first interested in the non-MBA degree. “In our MBA-MPH program, folks have to have experience in health care. A good percentage of those [who] come in [are] physicians,” Somers adds.

Hopkins’ class of 2012 MBA-MPH candidate Matthew Scally arrived at the program after four years of conducting genetics research at the National Institutes of Health. The MPH drew him in, and he went for the MBA because he had a side interest in business and economics. Initially, Scally saw himself pursuing a science-related PhD track, but he changed his mind after interning at a consulting firm this summer.

Long term, Scally says he is now interested in biotech consulting, particularly at companies where he “could help bring discoveries to market.” Until then, he expects to join a consulting firm after graduation in the same generalist role as most regular MBAs who enter that industry.

“Dual programs in students’ minds will probably open doors for them later on,” says Jan Williams, AACSB chairman and dean of the college of business administration at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


In fact, the long-term return on the MBA may be greater than the ROI on a single non-business master’s degree by itself, according to the PayScale data. With the exception of law and engineering, non-MBA degree-holders all had lower median salaries than stand-alone MBAs, including $58,300 for a master’s in public health and $48,600 for a master’s in education.

Still, the programs continue to multiply, and a small portion of students continue to enroll. At Stanford, where an unusually high 17 percent of MBA candidates pursue a dual degree, Derrick Bolton, who is assistant dean and director of MBA admissions, says some students see dual tracks as a vehicle to change careers. He uses liberal arts undergraduates interested in technology as an example.

“I’ve heard from a lot of prospective applicants on this,” he says. “They want to know, how do I move into this industry?”

For that reason, Stanford is in the process of investigating two new dual-degree MBA tracks: one with a master’s in computer science and the other with a master’s in electrical engineering. The programs would likely require a third year, allowing career changers to take additional math and science coursework.


Other candidates pursue dual-degree MBAs simply because a particular program speaks to them. Ryan Heller, a graduate of the program that combines an MBA with a master of fine arts degree at New York University’s Stern School of Business, wasn’t even thinking about business school until he read about the program in the entertainment trade magazine Variety.

At the time, Heller was producing music videos in the back of a tour van for his band Aberdeen City while also managing the group’s finances. The band ultimately landed an album deal through Columbia Records.

“My decision [to enroll] was so personal,” says Heller, who is now a senior manager of digital media for Starz Media, headquartered in Denver.

Less than 1 percent of NYU’s MBA student body pursues the joint MBA-MFA, but the university feels strongly about making it more efficient to pursue both degrees at the same time.

“If you want to be a leading university, you have to offer distinguishing programs,” says Sam Craig, director of Stern’s entertainment media and technology program. “We are among the few universities that can do this, and that is one reason why we offer it.”


At Hopkins, the MBA-MPH program is a top attraction, drawing a much higher portion of MBA candidates. Far less popular is Carey’s MBA coupled with a master’s in nursing. However, William Kooser, associate dean for students at Carey, maintains that it furthers the university’s educational mission. “We like to make sure we are maintaining and developing relationships with all the medical sides of JHU,” he says.

Business schools say reputable dual-degree programs also serve to strengthen ties with industry, which is what MIT says has happened with its Leaders for Global Operations program. In that dual-degree track, candidates receive an MBA and a master’s in engineering in one of seven engineering disciplines. Candidates must meet the rigorous application requirements of both MIT’s Sloan School of Management and its engineering school. The program has inspired partnerships with 24 companies, ranging from (AMZN), to Verizon Wireless (VZ), to Kimberly-Clark (KMB). As a partner, the companies get premier recruiting access to students who have been groomed to run large manufacturing facilities. MIT strategically recruits for the program and aims to attract 10 percent to 15 percent of its MBA class into that dual-degree track.

“The candidate pool offers breadth and depth for recruiting,” says Guillermo Pinochet, operations research director at Kimberly-Clark. “When you go there, you really are hitting a specific cluster of highly qualified potential leaders.”

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.
Zlomek is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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