Survival of the Flexible

Joan McGuire

MBA program administrators revamp business degrees to attract recruits.

Share this article!

When Annette Nemetz joined George Fox University’s MBA program as director four years ago, she set about doing research and outreach to students to get an idea of what they wanted from a business degree.

Listening to what enrollees expect from MBAs proved critical. Students wanted to pursue more specific courses rather than the traditional broad-based business degree. They wanted the flexibility to choose their own curriculum. They were interested in hot topics such as business analytics and digital marketing.

She also found that many people wanted to pursue short classes on specific topics to boost their skills rather than commit time and resources to gain a degree. So the college opened up its classes to graduates pursuing other academic programs.

And this fall, members of the broader business community will be able to attend short-term classes to update their skills.

Flexibility is the key to success of offering business degrees. Schools have to adapt to the needs and wants of today’s students if they want to stay in business themselves.

More than any other subject it seems, successful MBA programs reflect the changing face of the workforce and technological advancements that are transforming the world of work.

Business schools all over the country are transforming their degree programs as enrollment in traditional full-time MBAs declines nationally.

Low unemployment is one reason for the drop. “When the economy is doing well, the opportunity cost of quitting your job and moving to a college town to pursue a degree is high,” says John Becker-Blease, associate dean of graduate student development at Oregon State University.

The proliferation of business schools abroad and in the U.S. has also contributed to the decline in enrollment, particularly from international applicants. Students have more opportunity to pursue a degree in their home countries.

This has eroded the status of U.S. business schools, which, 10 years ago, were the most popular places to earn a degree for international students.

Oregon State University also found through surveying students that interest was high in specific skill sets such as finance, marketing and business analytics.

It has shifted the credit-based structure of its business degree so students have the opportunity to specialize in a topic that interests them.

“There is a shaking out of the generalized MBA skill set of management and leadership versus specialization. I can see growth happening more in specialized MBAs,” says Becker-Blease.

Oregon State University is seeing declining enrollment in its full-time two-year MBA but growing interest in its part-time business degree, as well as its online program option.

Becker-Blease puts this down to enrollees wanting more flexibility overall. “Students are recognizing there is no need to quit their job and scale back,” he says.

Student demand for flexibility and convenience is also felt at the University of Portland’s business school. The college opened a second location in Beaverton because students did not want to spend so much time traveling to attend classes, says Robin Anderson, dean of the business school.

For the past six years, the number of students enrolling in the University of Portland’s traditional MBA program has declined by around 30%.

In response, the business school started to offer more specialized degrees, such as Master of Operations and Technology Management and an MBA in nonprofit management.

Following the trend at other colleges, the University of Portland started to offer certificates in specific subjects, such as business analytics and customer experience, which can be completed in as little as six months.

These offerings are part of the trend of students seeking to gain competencies in business subjects rather than educational credentials, says Anderson.

This reflects the value workers place on mobility. “Workers don’t expect to be in a job for 40 years, collect a pension and retire. Employees are very mobile and are looking for competencies that help with that mobility,” says Anderson.

Despite the decline in MBA enrollment, business schools do not foresee the demise of the degree. If anything, MBAs are now viewed as essential credentials for many managerial jobs, rather than simply giving candidates an advantage over other job applicants.

“It is still a fundamental skill set that I don’t see going away,” says Becker-Blease.

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.