For years, the MBA has been the advanced degree of choice for many executives in West Michigan and beyond, particularly as they look to climb the corporate ladder.
But the times and the needs of students have been changing in recent years.
Many companies have started to seek out management candidates versed in disparate areas of study — candidates who are uniquely situated to step into the C-suite of a particular company, said Sheri Welsh, executive recruiter at Welsh & Associates Inc. in Kalamazoo.
“When you take a mechanical engineering degree and you combine that with an MBA, now you have the type of candidate that not only can understand the manufacturing and the design of products and operations, but the business side as well,” Welsh said. “We have several people that we’ve placed in recent years with that combination and it’s pretty deadly.”
Combined with an era of declining enrollment and the shifting needs of students, business schools across West Michigan are revamping their graduate programs to meet an ever-changing economic and cultural climate. As such, they’re focused on more flexible and accelerated programs, as well as integrating MBA programs into other in-demand fields like technology and health care.
“An MBA becomes extremely helpful when you’re talking about more technical degrees, especially,” Welsh said.
Local educators say prospective students — especially busy working professionals — are now more selective than ever when considering graduate programs. The solution for many schools: Increased program customization.
“What we’ve done, really, is give the students of today more choices,” said Mike Carey, department chair of the master of business administration program at Davenport University. “We’ve found that that’s what they’re looking for. They want it tailored to their needs.”
With the changing marketplace for candidates seeking degrees like MBAs, local business schools need to identify and adjust to trends to meet the needs of students and remain competitive.
“We have to take a look at our programs and say, ‘How dynamic versus static is this?’” said Koleta Moore, associate director of graduate programs at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business. “How are we changing to the trends that are out there to help the best and the brightest move forward in their careers? What is school X offering that we’re not?”
These offerings manifest in a variety of ways, Moore said. In particular, colleges and universities have expanded certificate programs, degree emphases, accelerated curriculums and online courses in recent years. If one school doesn’t provide the specific experience a given student is looking for, that student will find it elsewhere, she said.
As such, it’s beneficial for educators to adapt their offerings as much as possible.
“It’s important that we’re really making sure that we have our programs aligned with enough flexibility that an individual person will find the pathway that will support them,” said Jennifer Byron, associate dean of online programs at Davenport. “They’ll learn what they learn, when they need to learn it, and then can move forward in their career.”
One way schools have addressed flexibility is via accelerated programs. Students looking to condense the time spent obtaining an MBA can complete the program in 12 months, rather than two to four years.
“Someone can come in and satisfy all of the requirements for a full-fledged MBA program,” Carey said. “It’s exactly the same curriculum you get in our regular MBA program, just very accelerated.”
Others still prefer the more manageable pace of a traditional program, but now desire various ways to prove their progress along the way. In response, many universities have ramped up their certificate offerings.
“While somebody could be working two or four years to get their master’s, they may want a certification around project management or human resources that takes three or six months,” said David Lawrence, vice president of Davenport’s Institute for Professional Excellence, which offers professional development and customized training.
Professionals may find that the certification alone meets their needs based on where they’re at in their career. In many cases, however, it’s easier to leverage education in both the short- and long-term when combining the programs, Lawrence said.
“You can do smaller bites, where you get your certification and receive a credential while you’re working toward your degree. That makes it more marketable, but it also gives them a kind of stamp of approval of the work they’ve done,” he said. “They see some smaller wins versus waiting it out for four years.”
Exploring alternative delivery methods is important for schools attempting to incorporate flexibility without sacrificing their tried-and-true curriculum. Online courses have become increasingly popular as schools aim to alleviate the potential opportunity costs of committing to the rigid class schedule of a traditional MBA.
“When you have busy professionals, many of them have to travel, sometimes three to four days a week. Sitting in a class every Tuesday may not work for them,” said Moore of GVSU. “The opportunity to adjust and try to move into that marketplace is a key goal for us.”
Aside from the increased focus on online courses, the Seidman College of Business has plans to carry out other changes in upcoming years. The university decided to end its full-time integrated MBA, or FIMBA, at the end of its 2015-2016 cohort, for instance. Elements of the FIMBA, such as professional fellowships and trips abroad, will remain available to students, but the program at large is retiring because of issues of “scalability,” according to Moore.
On the other hand, GVSU plans to expand its executive MBA program by opening it to professionals from all over West Michigan by fall of 2016. It’s currently offered only to Spectrum Health employees.
Although Davenport announced plans last year to close its campuses in Kalamazoo and Flint, citing increasing online enrollment, the university continues to adjust its business program and build in Caledonia. Construction continues at the W.A. Lettinga campus on the new $15.5 million building for the Donald W. Maine College of Business, which is intended to promote innovation and collaboration, including a center for entrepreneurship, according to Dr. Pamela Imperato, the school’s dean.
On the curricular level, Davenport has also adapted to the demand for industry-specific MBAs in the technology and health care sectors. The growing health care industry in West Michigan has led to more students in medical school or residencies simultaneously completing their MBA degrees, according to the university.
The reason: “To get that business sense, so they can actually function and run their own office once they graduate, or to give them additional skills necessary to get into administration at a hospital,” Carey said.
Despite an overall positive response to the myriad adjustments colleges and universities have made to their business programs in recent years, concerns still remain.
Specifically, educators say they need to take into account students’ needs but at the same time not discount the rigors of their programs.
“We want to make sure that we’re not sacrificing quality while we look at the trends — that’s been our vantage point,” said Moore of GVSU.
Looking forward, business schools hope that a recovering economy will encourage companies to invest back into professional development, as educational support was “one of the first things to go” with the recession, Moore said.
Given the impact the cyclical nature of the corporate world has on graduate-level business education, educators say they need to keep a finger on the pulse of local business, finance and culture as best they can.
“I think it’s really important to say that we don’t live in an incremental world at all. We live in a world of bold strokes and punctuated equilibrium,” said Imperato of Davenport. “If you get a change, it’s filtering over in many different markets and many different sectors. More and more, you’ve got to have somebody who is being educated around how to innovate and how to manage innovation.
“Your long-term plan could be completely blown asunder by a new computer chip. If you’re not comfortable with ambiguity, this is not the game for you.”