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Lamar Horne was on the standard career path for someone with corner-office ambitions: an undergraduate degree in business, two years in investment banking, another two in private equity. Since most of his colleagues at PNC Mezzanine Capital in Pittsburgh had MBAs, Horne figured that if he wanted to reach partner level, he’d need one, too. By last December he had been accepted at two full-time MBA programs.
But as the 28-year-old tried to choose a school, he questioned the wisdom of leaving a good job in an unstable employment market. So in August he started a part-time MBA at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, just a few miles from his office. It’ll take him about a year longer than a traditional MBA, but he won’t have to leave PNC in his quest to advance. “I didn’t want to gamble with going to a full-time program, come out in two years with an increased debt load, and then hope to find a job,” Horne says.
Before the economic downturn, fewer prospective MBAs sought the part-time option. Applicants didn’t mind leaving a job or taking on student loan debt because they knew it wouldn’t be hard to pay off, thanks to the salary bump and signing bonus they could expect upon graduation. Even as the downturn worsened, applications to full-time MBA programs continued to rise as many ambitious young people figured they could wait out the crisis in B-school.
Today, MBA grads are no longer assured of getting a job better than the one they leave. So it’s no surprise that part-time and executive MBA programs are thriving. While applications to full-time MBA programs are down at two-thirds of the 199 schools responding to a survey this summer by the Graduate Management Admission Council, more than 40 percent of part-time and executive programs have seen an increase.
Part-time programs generally target students with about five years of work experience who live within a 50-mile radius of the school, as classes are offered on weekday evenings. Executive MBA programs, or EMBAs, seek more experienced people, usually with at least eight years in management. EMBA courses tend to take place on alternating weekends and attract students from a wider geographic area. Part-time degrees can take three to six years, vs. two for most full-time and EMBA programs. As part of the 2011 Best Part-Time MBA and Best EMBA rankings, Bloomberg Businessweek surveyed 10,000-plus recent graduates from both types of programs at more than 100 B-schools.
With the increased demand for their offerings, part-time and executive MBA administrators are trying to differentiate their schools and meet the needs of students who are footing more of their tuition bill on their own. With classes on weeknights and weekends, part-timers often aren’t “truly engaged in the program or with the students who are moving through the program with them,” says Bill Burpitt, associate dean for graduate and executive programs at Elon University’s Love School of Business in North Carolina, Bloomberg Businessweek’s top-ranked part-time MBA program.
To counter this, Elon has sought to make its part-time offering as personal and engaging as a full-time MBA. Part-timers at Love start with an immersion course where they develop business goals, undergo a comprehensive evaluation, and take on a two-day, team-based business simulation to get better acquainted with their classmates. Throughout each semester, those sessions are followed up with a range of social events. “All MBA programs teach finance; they all teach marketing,” Burpitt says. “What makes us different is that we try to deliver great personal relationships.”
A decade ago, when employers were covering much of the part-time and EMBA tuition expenses, it would have been taboo for a student to request access to an MBA career office. Those who did sometimes needed a waiver signed by their employer. Today, nearly every program offers students career assistance in some form. For many, that means workshops and speakers focused on advancement with topics such as networking and résumé writing.
At Elon, part-timers have job workshops and receive one-on-one career counseling similar to what full-time MBAs get at other schools. “There’s less job security now, and more students are looking at the MBA as an insurance policy,” Burpitt says. Among respondents to the Bloomberg Businessweek survey of part-timers, 58 percent identified themselves as either a job changer or a career switcher. Help with job hunting, Burpitt says, “has become a necessity.”
At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the top-ranked EMBA program, administrators help students make connections with industry contacts. EMBA students have the opportunity to meet face to face with executives and well-placed alumni. “It’s not specifically career coaching,” says Patty Keegan, associate dean of Booth’s North America EMBA program. “It’s having that intimate access to a C-level person.” In the meetings, the alum answers any career questions students may have, with one exception: “We don’t want them asking for a job,” Keegan says.
Only 19 percent of respondents to this year’s EMBA survey were completely funded by their employers, down from 32 percent in 2007. And 42 percent paid their entire tuition on their own, vs. 28 percent four years ago. The decrease in corporate support means prospective students are considering a larger number of programs. “In the old days when your employer was paying for it, you went to the school they recommended,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, a trade group representing EMBA schools. “Now, as tuition reimbursement has shifted, and so many people are paying their own way, students are starting to shop around.”
Prospective EMBAs aren’t looking exclusively for strong core business teachings; they’re also shopping for classes in areas such as entrepreneurship, career advancement, and leadership. “Students want to know how to make critical decisions and, at the same time, be able to lead people down a path that grows the organization,” Desiderio says. “It’s something students and employers both want to see more of in the classroom.”
At Columbia Business School, the second-ranked EMBA, leadership offerings have been enhanced with electives such as “Thinking Globally” and “Organizational Culture Demystified.” Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (No. 3 on the EMBA list) has added a course called “Leading High Impact Teams” to its EMBA this year and began offering three EMBA leadership workshops.
Entrepreneurship is also finding its way into EMBA curriculums. At Booth, a concentration in the area was added to the EMBA program this year, and 10 percent of students have already signed up. The school also added a required course in entrepreneurial strategy to the core EMBA curriculum. “I think it’s a way of hedging what’s going on in the corporate world,” Associate Dean Keegan says. “I may not be at a large company for my entire career. I want to be prepared if I go on to work for myself.”
The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which fell to No. 9 in the part-time ranking from No. 5 two years ago, is trying to create new momentum by reaching out to companies in industries beyond its traditional stronghold, automobile manufacturing. Michigan’s part-time MBA offering was devised for employees at Ford (F), and as recently as seven years ago a quarter of part-time students at Ross came from the carmakers or their suppliers.
With fewer students hailing from the auto industry, Ross struggled to fill classes in its traditional evening MBA offering. So last year it introduced a part-time weekend MBA in addition to the evening program. The aim was to attract students from a wider geographic area; they might be more willing to travel if they didn’t have to worry about getting to work the next day. The weekend program now has 70 students, with half coming from more than 50 miles away. An additional benefit: “We have more diversity of industry,” says Paul Clyde, who oversees Ross’s part-time programs.
B-school administrators say they’re confident working professionals will continue seeking more choices in getting an MBA, and more schools are adding programs. On Nov. 1, Rollins College’s Crummer Graduate School of Business in Florida announced a new EMBA program on campus, while HEC Paris and the Anderson School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles (No. 2 in part-time and No. 5 in EMBA) are adding to their EMBA offerings outside of their home countries. “Given the costs of a quality MBA education, the numbers will only continue to increase,” says Mark Rice, dean of business at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, No. 8 in the part-time ranking. “I don’t think there’s much chance of going back.”