Craig Mitchell knew exactly what he was looking for in a business school: a curriculum that would make possible a career change from accountant and business-software consultant to investment banking, a placement office that had good relationships with Wall Street firms, and a community where his wife and three daughters would be comfortable and welcome. After the 35-year-old Castle Rock (Colo.) resident narrowed his choices to seven or eight schools that would best serve his career, thoughts of his family's happiness whittled the list further. His final choice: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business
School. "Chapel Hill is an ideal environment for a family," says Mitchell. "You can live close to the B-school; the town is very family-oriented. And [then] when we got here, the families at the school completely embraced us."
Mitchell is one of a growing number of MBA students who head to campus with a spouse or a significant other -- and, increasingly, a family -- in tow. Unlike students in, say, medical and law schools, who usually attend just after graduating from college, most MBA candidates have five years of work experience and enter business school at about 27 years old. Given that, the number of MBA students coming to campus with a family is topping 40% at some B-schools, up from 25% or less a decade ago.
While a single person who is giving up a full-time job and plunking down upwards of $80,000 for two years of tuition -- not to mention the cost of living expenses and lost salary -- can easily devote endless hours to studying, adjusting to a new locale, and living the dorm life for two years, MBA students with families face a far different set of challenges. Living without a paycheck and racking up debt when you've got kids and a spouse is hard enough. But family life suffers when you're being a slave to an irregular class schedule, odd-hours study groups, extracurricular activities -- from case competitions and consulting projects to a myriad of career-focused or community-oriented clubs -- plus a time-consuming internship and job search. And, B-school administrators say, a student worried about a partner's or child's well-being doesn't get the most out of the program.
Family concerns have "played a greater and greater role in the decision-making process for applicants in the last few years," says David Capodilupo, executive director of the MBA program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Business. Schools have moved to provide more programs and services to make the transition -- and the two years -- easier for everyone. Most boast a partners' club that organizes events, socials, and support for spouses. Many schools offer job counseling for partners as well as a slew of activities for them and the kids that coincide with a student's orientation schedule. And some B-schools -- helped by their students -- have gone above and beyond to cater to family members.
The savviest schools anticipate the needs of partners from the first campus visit -- before a prospective student has even been accepted. That was the case for Margaret Arthurs, whose husband, Ian, is a first-year MBA student at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. When the Arthurs arrived for Ian's campus tour and interview, the admissions staff invited Margaret along -- a gesture the other schools didn't make. After her husband was accepted, Margaret got what the school calls a "smile-and-dial" call from a group of second-year partners offering to answer any questions she might have about the school. The Arthurs were already leaning toward Tuck, but the call confirmed what the couple believed -- that Margaret would feel as welcome at the school as Ian would. When the Arthurs arrived on campus, Margaret took advantage of an uncommon perk among top schools: a marriage counselor who holds weekly sessions for spouses where they can hash out their adjustment problems and talk through the challenges of being a B-school partner.
Others, such as Columbia Business School, pay special attention to the families of international students, who often arrive not just in a new city but in a new country. While their spouse-students get a built-in network of classmates and courses, the husbands and wives may find themselves without working papers and with minimal English-language skills. Early on, Columbia helps such families with housing and relocation. To ease the language barrier, the B-school offers free language classes through Berlitz.
THE DECIDING DETAIL
A few schools go out of their way to cater to children, too. Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management is known as a place where students, faculty, and administrators are unusually close. Katie Bard, a mother of two girls under the age of 4, says Kellogg's brochure helped sell her -- and her husband -- on the idea of uprooting the family from Austin, Tex. "Of the five or six brochures we got from Top 10 schools, Kellogg's was the only one that featured photos of families," says Bard.
She adds that the reality lived up to the billing. At most schools, partners' clubs sponsor kids' activities, but at Kellogg children have their own club funded by the students' activities fee. Kellogg Kids holds twice-weekly play groups and offers a music class and a crafts class one afternoon each week. Parents trade babysitting duties, and Kellogg Kids even takes field trips to places like the zoo and holds bagel breakfasts for families and students. The club tries to lend extra support to international families; Bard, a past co-chair of Kellogg Kids, says about half the members are from outside the U.S.
Another twist on B-schools' nurturing of candidates' families: encouraging interaction among children, partners, and students -- and not just at holiday parties or special events. UNC student Craig Mitchell and his wife Wendy launched Friday Night Families at Kenan-Flagler, held two or three times per month. Kids get playtime with, say, crafts activities, and parent-students and their spouses have an opportunity to mingle. The get-togethers allow married students to enjoy more of the social interaction that single students have always had. In the beginning, Friday Night Families was informal -- a pot-luck dinner held at someone's house. Now the B-school's partner club provides some money to help pay for the food and supplies for the gatherings.
Juggling the pressures of B-school can make for a stressful two years for any student. Add a spouse, partner, or children, and it can be like juggling atop a high wire. Finding a school that makes the family experience as rich as the MBA program can make all the difference.
By Jennifer Merritt