Masters in management programmes now attractive in the US

How the 2008 crisis opened business programmes in the US up to more graduates
Wake Forest students

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In 2008, as Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global economy plunged into freefall, Seun Akinboboye was living on New York’s Lower East Side, some 50 blocks from the bank’s then home in Times Square.

He was an undergraduate psychology major at New York University and he heard his friends from the business school talking about Lehman, using words such as “crisis”. But he did not understand fully what was happening.

“I felt disempowered – I felt I had no frame of reference for what was going on around me,” he says. “Having attended the college of arts and sciences, I didn’t feel like I walked away with an understanding of business or the general corporate environment.”

That feeling of powerlessness, combined with a job market that had collapsed, led Akinboboye to pursue a one-year masters in management (MiM) at Wake Forest University, one of the first schools to offer such a programme in the US.

Steve Reinemund, retiring dean of Wake Forest’s school of business who is now an executive in residence at the school, says that going back to his days as PepsiCo’s chief executive from 2001 to 2006, he has always valued the broad understanding of the world prevalent among employees with a liberal arts education. “If we had more people with broader experience [in the business world] maybe we wouldn’t have had the crises we have had in the past 10 years,” he says.

Reinemund made it part of his mission as dean to endow such graduates with the business acumen that the working world demands and their degrees often lack.

Wake Forest was among the first universities in the US to launch a one-year master of arts in management programme, with an inaugural class of 13 students in 2006, just before Reinemund’s arrival. The programme, designed for recent graduates with little or no work experience, has grown more than 10-fold to about 140 in the latest year.

“So many liberal arts students in their first four years don’t get the direction they need to connect them with what they want to do or are suited to do in the marketplace and this one year gives them that,” Reinemund says. “It puts them on equal or better footing than those students who come through the [undergraduate] business schools.”

Farrell Hall at the Wake Forest Univeristy

Such degrees, long popular in Europe, have become more attractive in the US as the financial crisis prompted undergraduates to reassess the value of taking two years off to earn an MBA. MiM graduates often head for positions in finance, consulting, sales or marketing, and many of the schools report high placement rates.

The programmes tend to allow students to choose a marketing or finance track, and often focus on group work, public speaking and experiential learning – from live case studies to consulting projects with local businesses.

Akinboboye says the consulting project he undertook allowed him to “mimic what I was learning in a textbook and in class with an actual situation which was facing an organisation in real life”. That experience has served him well in his position as a commercial banker at BB&T, he says.

Since Wake Forest launched its programme, a wave of other schools have followed suit. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, with 25 students last year, and University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business are two of the latest entrants.

“If you think of our six core primary peers – Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, University of Chicago Booth, Columbia – none of them are getting into this one-year master’s of science space for these [recent graduates],” says Betsy Ziegler, dean of students at Kellogg.

Michigan welcomed its first class in July – 41 students with degrees, like those of most one-year candidates, from economics to literature to engineering.

Amy Dittmar, Michigan’s associate dean of speciality masters programmes, says the decision to launch the programme was driven by demand from students “whose experience is post-recession but not exactly boom times”.

“What we’ve heard from talking to focus groups of students is that they do get interviews with companies with the degrees that they have, but they aren’t necessarily successful in getting the job,” she says.

Recruiter demand for liberal arts students with a strong business foundation encouraged Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to launch its programme in 2009.

The economy also drove University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, whose inaugural class graduated in 2009.

“Starting with such a [bad] job market had its advantages in the recruiting aspect because there were a lot of very talented students who could not get jobs,” says Cyndy Huddleston, Virginia’s associate dean of graduate admissions. “I of course had the worry that once the job market gets better [it might] make it more of a challenge to recruit but our numbers do not yet bear that out.”

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