Powerlist: MBA Programs 2017

Business degrees get more focus

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Last December the admissions director for the University of Oregon’s business school traveled to Shanghai and Guangzhou, China, to recruit students for the university’s new Master of Science in finance (MSF) degree.

The new degree piggybacks on the wave of popularity for advanced finance degrees in the U.S., which have attracted Chinese students in particular. Enrollees can complete the MSF, which launches in the summer of 2017, in just one year, and unlike traditional MBA programs, applicants do not need prior work experience. Tuition costs $45,000, including fees.

The growth of specialized business degrees is leaving the future of broad-based MBAs in doubt. While the number of applicants for the University of Oregon’s MBA program has increased steadily (the number of full-time students is up 17% from the previous year), new advanced business degrees, such as the new MSF credential, are growing at a faster clip.

“The MBA program is in the mature stage with stagnant growth in recent years. The MSF program has been growing much faster in the past decade — especially in terms of attracting international students,” says Zhi Wang, associate professor of finance at the University of Oregon.

Academic institutions across the state are launching specialized business degrees in response to employers’ increasing demand for skills and competences in specific areas. Universities are being forced to rethink the structure and appeal of broad-based MBA programs as students flock to alternative certifications that often take less time to complete and are cheaper.

The trend toward specialization reflects shifts in today’s workplace, where organizational structures are flatter and employees are increasingly their own bosses. This has eaten away at the status of the middle manager — traditionally holders of MBAs.

“Employers have found more productive ways to manage companies. Everyone has access to data and information. There is no need for hierarchy anymore,” says Robin Anderson, dean at the University of Portland Pamplin School of Business.

Over the past few years, the University of Portland has added several specialized business degrees to meet employers’ need for specific skills. One of its most popular programs is its Master of Science in operations and technology management, which teaches students how to manage big data.

“Data science is very hot now; understanding what data to collect and what questions you should be asking of the data,” says Anderson. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of several employers interested in hiring data science graduates, he added.

To keep students applying to its broad-based MBA, the University of Portland allows to add a concentration, such as the Master of Science in operations and technology management. “This has helped maintain enrollment,” says Anderson.

Academic institutions are adding more sweeteners to their traditional two-year MBA programs to keep them relevant and attractive to prospective students. Millennials, in particular, want flexibility and convenience and are also very cost conscious.

“Students want choices. They don’t just want to be part of a structured program. They want choices that fit in with their career and life,” says Anderson.

The University of Oregon added flexibility to its traditional business degree by offering an accelerated MBA, which students can complete in as little as nine months compared with the traditional two-year duration. The Oregon MBA costs $27,000 a year ($37,000 for out-of-state students). The ability to halve the cost of the MBA by completing it in one year is a driver of its growing popularity, says Paul Allen, director of admissions and recruiting for the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business.

The university has also added flexibility to its Oregon Executive MBA, which caters to midcareer professionals who want to work fulltime while earning a business degree. Program administrators shortened the time students attend class to twice a month rather than four times a month. They also shifted classes to a Friday and Saturday so enrollees miss fewer workdays.

“Students are now very sophisticated consumers and shoppers for higher education,” says Julianna Sowash, director of executive admissions for the Oregon Executive MBA. “Whereas they may have looked at two options they are now looking at five or more options and all the extras that universities are providing.”

Others are more sanguine about the future of traditional MBAs. Michelle Cowing, School of Management dean at Concordia University, says she has seen increased interest in non-MBA programs, such as Master of Finance and post-graduate certificates, but the MBA remains the most recognized business degree.

“I don’t think MBA will be the strongest growth area. People are finding other options. But the MBA is still a sought-after degree,” says Cowing.

Billy Dorsch, admissions counselor for the school of professional studies at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, says the MBA has a good future. Full-time enrollment in the MBA, which is exclusively online, has grown 7% since 2014. The business degree is broad based with six core courses, but the university is considering adding more concentrations, says Dorsch.

Slow growth rates in MBA programs are likely to become a fact of life for business schools in the future. Under pressure to increase enrollment, universities are likely to continue to look to alternative academic programs to boost student headcounts.

“Graduate education will continue the trend to specialized skills. It could be that in 10 years’ time you will not have MBAs,” says Anderson.

Check out the MBA Powerlist below.

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