Specializing the MBA

MBA graduates are still worth the fat paychecks, according to a recent piece in the Hartford Business Journal, but the article also asserts that it may be time for a restructuring of MBA programs toward more specific disciplines. Too often, businesses complain that MBA graduates have only a superficial knowledge of their subject matter and struggle to provide in-depth analysis with limited expertise. The University of Connecticut School of Business thinks it has found a way to solve that problem.

P. Christopher Earley, the new dean of UConn’s business school, says that instead of a general MBA, students would get degrees in specialized fields such as a Masters in Real Estate Finance or a Masters in the Science of Risk Management. It would require offering more in-depth classes, but such changes could be made with the current faulty pool already in place. Earley hopes to have his plan in place by Fall 2009. UConn’s MBA program would remain, but it will be kept small and elite, ideal for senior and experienced managers to pursue after they’ve worked for eight to 10 years.

“In Europe, this is already a fairly significant movement,” Earley says, adding that he wants UConn to be ahead of the curve by embracing these changes now.

The more specialized MBA model will become the new norm, Earley thinks, with general MBAs all but dying out except at elite schools or in lower ranked, Internet-based programs. Kevin B. Taylor, MBA program director for Quinnipiac University, says it’s tough to imagine Earley’s theory that general MBAs will die out. Instead, many schools have just reworked their MBA programs–in Quinnipac’s case, adding more credit hours and ramping up business knowledge emphases.

Boston’s Northeastern University made its own MBA changes two years ago, says Thomas Moore, dean of the College of Business Administration. Rather than moving away from the MBA altogether, Northeastern reworked its programs–but Moore agreed with Earley’s assessment of the MBA’s current flaws. “The one-size-fits-all, the general MBA, has lost some of its appeal,” he says. “The notion of a broad, general MBA that’s going to create this Renaissance manager and leader, those days are probably gone.”

Northeastern has tried to incorporate more specific programs on issues such as finance, marketing or supply chains, but the college has also added an emphasis on “soft skills”, such as project management abilities, data mining, and communication. Moore says they restructured their program based on advice from corporations such as Fidelity, W.R. Grace, State Street Bank and others, gathered from a series of focus groups. The process took about 15 months.

The school has since kept in contact with many corporations to gauge how the changes have fared in terms of real-world results, and Moore says those businesses are happy to be more involved in the process. Some of those strengthened academic-corporate bonds have helped increase the number of corporate residencies–similar to internships–offered for their students.

“Companies are paying a premium for the MBA, and they expect results,” Moore says.

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