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Monday, 26 March 2012 10:17

Hard to read economy from West Michigan MBA enrollments

Written by  Kym Reinstadler
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WEST MICHIGAN — Enrollments in Master’s of Business Administration programs usually reflect the vigor of the economy — in reverse.

When the economy is robust, professional demands soar. Enrollments decline as only those most intent on climbing the corporate ladder make time for graduate studies.

In a skittish economy, professionals head back to school, hoping new skills and an additional degree will protect them from a layoff, or provide a leg up to a career change.

MBA enrollments in West Michigan programs don’t tell a clear story of economic recovery, or decline.

Enrollment is stable in the region’s largest MBA programs, run by Davenport University (1,965 students) and by Western Michigan University (400 students) at multiple locations.

MBA enrollments at Grand Valley State University (212 students) and Ferris State University (100 students) have declined slightly from 2008 to 2010, the apparent trough of the recession.

Conversely, enrollment in Cornerstone University’s MBA program grew modestly to 165 students this academic year on the strength of a new option for health care administrators, which enrolls 21.

Midland-based Northwood University also entered the West Michigan MBA market in January 2011. Only 10 students remain from the original cohort, but there are 16 in the second and 25 registered to start this fall.

“Enrollment in traditional MBA programs is declining and it’s largely because so many schools (are) competing,” said Claudia Bajema, director of graduate business programs in GVSU’s Seidman College of Business. “Grand Rapids is viewed as a vital economy by people across the state, and many universities want to set up a satellite program here. The pie gets divvied up among many, many players.”

Competition for the most talented students is also intense, Bajama said.

Michigan State University’s Eli Broad Graduate School of Management attracts many West Michigan students because it runs a weekend MBA program in East Lansing, which is just over an hour’s drive away.

There’s also the star appeal of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, perennially ranked among the top 10 business schools in the nation.

Both premiere options are bigger and costlier.

Ross enrolls 1,914 students in four programs and the cost runs $96,000 to $106,000, depending on residency. Broad enrolls 812 students in three programs at a cost of $50,000 to $80,000, depending on residency.

WMU’s Haworth School of Business and GVSU’s Seidman are the West Michigan business schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, generally recognized as the accepted accrediting body of business schools.

Bajema said she believes students — who typically begin MBA studies around age 30, after a few years in a career — are best served by a program that equips them in all traditional aspects of business: accounting, finance, marketing, human resources and operations management.

But the growing trend is to concentrate in a certain area. Davenport, Cornerstone and Ferris have developed — or are in the process of developing — business management programs for health care administration, since employment in the medical sector is increasing.

Business schools also compete on the basis of accessibility. WMU touts free and easy parking at its MBA sites. Davenport and Northwood both chose their new downtown Grand Rapids locations based on easy-on, easy-off freeway access for students. Both provide students with free parking — a big bonus downtown.

Davenport even caters free dinners for students coming straight from the office for one of the school’s night program.

FSU’s program is predominantly online, and Davenport runs an online option.

Both have also built their MBA curriculums on the Baldrige Criteria for Excellence, named for former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, which focuses on quality products, services and customer relations, as well as “big picture” thinking such as ethics and sustainability.

Northwood’s niche is that students, who research Harvard case studies, lead classes themselves in a boardroom format. Half their grade is based on participation.

“Working professionals don’t want to be lectured,” said Bridget Eklund, regional admissions representative for the Northwood University’s DeVos Graduate School of Management, and a member of the first Grand Rapids cohort. “We need guidance from an instructor, but we’d rather be engaged and teaching ourselves.”

GVSU launched a full-time, integrated curriculum MBA program last fall for students who just earned a bachelor’s degree in business, finding that many new grads were not finding attractive work opportunities and instead wanted to immediately pursue master’s studies.

Knowing these students would still need professional work experiences to shine above the crowd, Bajema and staff forged corporate partnerships at Steelcase, Amway, American Seating and others to give these students paid internships.

WMU is also seeing a trend of applicants for its program being mostly in their early 20s, although some are in their late 50s.

While there are no formal internships for students coming directly from undergraduate programs, WMU does have an informal method of getting MBA candidates the experience they’ll need.

“It doesn’t have a name, but I call it LinkedIn on Steroids,” said Alex Manga, WMU’s director of MBA and Global programs.

About 3,000 alumni of the business school are active on the professional networking site LinkedIn, Manga said. Posting a need there is sure to bring offers of paid work experience from many of Southwest Michigan’s top employers, including Stryker, Kellogg, Gordon Food Service, Whirlpool and Pfizer, he said.

With a nod to the increasingly global nature of business, most local MBA programs also require at least one foreign study trip that’s at least two weeks long.

Cornerstone MBA students choose between four trips scheduled annually to South Africa, Israel, Europe and China. GVSU’s 12 full-time students toured American businesses in China over spring break and studied in Washington D.C. last fall.

About three-fourths of WMU’s MBAs continue their careers in Michigan. The university doesn’t require a study abroad experience, but urges MBA candidates to take its trips to emerging market countries like India, Thailand and Chile.

“Business is changing so fast that it’s like trying to hit three rabbits with one rock, and by that I mean really difficult,” said Manga, who consults area businesses as a means for keeping curriculum current.

“Business used to have the luxury of three- to five-year planning windows,” Manga continued. “Now they may have to plan every six months, and make weekly adjustments, to stay on plan.”

To remain relevant and competitive, business schools will have to stay engaged with business leaders to understand their challenges and propose workable solutions in a fast-changing world, Manga said.

“It’s not getting any easier out there,” Manga said. “Everybody’s feeling it.”


Local MBA Programs

Davenport University

Enrollment: 1,965 students

Locations: Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo

Format and duration: Full-time one-year; part-time evening; weekend (Executive MBA), and online. Seven-week classes.

Concentrations: Accounting, finance, health care management, human resources management, strategic management.

Cost: In-seat tuition is $545 per credit hour. Online tuition is $555 per credit hour.


Western Michigan University

Enrollment: 400 students

Locations: Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids (Ionia Ave. and Beltline)

Format: Evenings, part-time

Duration: 36 credit hours (minimum of five semesters)

Concentrations (three courses in each): Computer Information Systems, Finance, General Business, International Business, Management, Marketing

Cost: $18,500 (academics only)


Grand Valley State University

Enrollment: 212 students

Location: Grand Rapids

Formats: Part-time, (evenings and some Saturdays); Full-time, integrated.

Duration: Average for traditional program is three years; 14 months for the full-time, general MBA

Concentrations: Students in the traditional program have option to emphasize finance, management of technology, or health sector management.

Cost: $516 per credit hour for the part-time, evening program; $30,800 for the full-time program


Cornerstone University

Enrollment: 165 students with at least two years professional experience

Location: Grand Rapids

Format: On-the-ground or online

Duration: 18 months

Concentrations: General or specialized health care management (on-ground only)

Cost: $836 per credit hour for students taking 12 credits or less


Ferris State University

Enrollment: 100

Location: Primarily online

Format: Seven-week. All core classes and most popular electives taught online. Occasional Saturdays. Dual degrees in pharmacy, accounting, nursing.

Duration: 1.5 to 2.5 years

Concentrations: Management Tools and Concepts or Project Management (fully on-line); Design and Innovation Management (two weekends required at Kendall College for each class); Incident Response or Business Intelligence (two to three Saturdays in Big Rapids per class); security information systems.

Cost: $483 per credit hour


Northwood University

Enrollment: 26

Location: Grand Rapids (others in Midland, Lansing, Troy)

Format: Part-time, evening (one night per week). Student-centered methodology. Participate in business simulation in Midland last week of July.

Duration: 24 months

Cost: $32,998

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