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UT-Dallas' Monica Powell explains why today's part-time MBA students want more from their degrees—and the career-management office—and what this means for academic programs
Interest in part-time MBA programs has been growing steadily during the past few years, as students who were worried about the economic outlook opted to pursue degrees that allow them to hold onto their current jobs while in school. There were 66,183 students enrolled in part-time MBA programs in the U.S. in the 2009-10 academic year, up from 64,305 in 2008-09, according to member school data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, one of the leading accreditation agencies. The new generation of part-time MBA students is registering a shift in expectations about what it wants from school. Students are demanding more assistance than ever from career services as they pursue the degree for almost entirely different motives than their predecessors displayed, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Dallas' School of Management. Of the students surveyed, about 67 percent said they expect to get a new job after earning their degree. That's a change from years past, when most students chose to stay in their current jobs after graduating, the study said. Monica Powell, associate dean at the UT-Dallas School of Management (UT-Dallas Part-Time MBA Profile) and author of the study, has been tracking the pre-MBA expectations of incoming part-time MBA students for nearly two decades. Her school runs a part-time MBA program with 600 students, letting her observe the students first-hand. When she came to suspect that the new generation of students entering part-time programs was coming in with a different mind-set than those she had worked with in the 1990s, Powell says she decided to put her theory to the test. She asked four public and four private schools with part-time programs—including Wake Forest University's Schools of Business (Wake Forest Part-Time MBA Profile) and University of California, Irvine's Merage School of Business (Merage Part-Time MBA Profile)—to participate in a survey that asked incoming students about their expectations about everything from faculty and career outlooks to networking.The survey was distributed to 1,116 entering part-time MBA students from April to September of this year.Powell presented the study's finding on Oct.21st at the Annual Part-Time MBA Conference at DePaul University (DePaul Part-Time MBA Profile). Bloomberg Businessweek's Alison Damast recently spoke with Powell about the findings and how the part-time MBA landscape is shifting for both schools and students, particularly on the career front. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation. Is there a generational shift taking place in what part-time students expect to get out of their degree? Back in the 1990s, when I conducted this type of research, I'd ask part-time students about their post-degree expectations. A lot of them talked about how they were getting the degree so they could move up in their organization, advance their opportunities with their employer, and take on a bigger chunk of responsibility. When you talk to this current group and ask them why they are pursuing this degree, students say they are doing it because they want to make themselves more marketable in the job arena, distinguish themselves from others, and further their educational backgrounds. It's partly generational because of Gen Y and the Millennials, but there's been a shift away from doing the degree for the company toward doing it for themselves. For them, it is almost as if they are doing this as an insurance policy for their careers. If they are going to be on the chopping block, maybe they will be later in line if they have this degree, as opposed to the head of the line.
It seems like part-time students are more paranoid about their jobs because of the economy. Are their behavior patterns shifting at all when it comes to how they balance work and school life? It's interesting because students used to tell me all the time that the way they'd get through the program was by giving up time at work or leaving the office a couple of hours early to pursue a class project. When we ask students today, they say they are going to give up things in their personal life, whether time with their husband, family, or friends or giving up yoga. I think that's also a reflection of the economy. They don't want anyone at the office to think they are slacking off or letting the degree take time away from their job. They don't want to do anything that will create any bumps in the road. Fewer companies today are sponsoring students in part-time programs. Is that changing students' mind-sets? Yes, there are fewer firms willing to reimburse tuition at the same rate they were pre-2008, but that has been declining pretty rapidly across graduate education. Companies just aren't giving up that discretionary funding and are not supporting students the way they used to. As a result, today's students don't feel that same sense of loyalty to employers because they haven't invested in them. Part-time students seem to be demanding more career assistance than ever before from part-time MBA programs these days, with 87 percent of those surveyed indicating they expect the school to provide them with resources and connections to find a new or better job after graduation. How is that different from the past? There was a time when a part-time MBA student could not take advantage of anything in a career-management office unless they had a signed permission slip from their company. The companies were reimbursing the students and they didn't want the schools to help them leave the organization. Now, with fewer companies reimbursing, there are just a handful of schools where that is still a requirement or where that is expected. Here at the University of Texas at Dallas, our career-management office is open to all of our students, including part-time ones. This is relatively new at most schools, but it is an increasing trend over the last few years and I think it will be a snowballing one. Companies are probably going to get out of tuition reimbursement in a complete way in the future, so it will fall to the schools on how they are going to build this resource in order to meet the needs and expectations of this particular audience. What types of career moves do part-time students want to make and are business schools' career services offices prepared to meet their needs? I think all the schools are thinking now about where they are going to [find] the career staff to support the part-time students. The students have pretty high expectations from a career-management perspective for themselves. About 51 percent of respondents said they expect their salary to increase 16 percent or more after graduation and 68 percent expect to receive a promotion within 6 to 12 months. The question is: Is that a reasonable expectation in a market like this? To have that particular expectation coming into an MBA program is a little bit problematic for our career-management operations. The schools need to ask themselves what they need to be doing for students to either help them accomplish their objectives or modify their expectations so that they aren't as high. You don't want to blow a hole in their hopes or their dreams, but you also want to be sure you are providing them the expected career-management support to be able to execute that.