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Stephen Skripak likes to tell prospective students at Virginia Tech about how he earned his MBA at Purdue University in the late 1980s while working as a young executive at General Electric. He was promoted twice in the three years it took him to obtain the part-time degree.

“I decided to go that direction because I was already married, we already had a house and my wife’s income wouldn’t have been enough to sustain our lifestyle,” says Prof Skripak, assistant dean of graduate programmes at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin School of Business. “It fitted my circumstances perfectly — and my circumstances are not that different from people today: a single income doesn’t always support the lifestyle, the house payment, the car payment.”

Prof Skripak is overseeing Pamplin’s transition away from a full-time MBA degree to offer only part-time MBA programmes. Virginia Tech made the decision to go all part-time — offering executive, evening and weekend programmes — last year after watching its full-time MBA applications drop and part-time applications rise for the past three or four years.

“It was simply a numbers game . . . we’re just kind of going with the market,” says Prof Skripak.

“People don’t want to give up their jobs in an economy that is this iffy and a great way to get the MBA without having to go back to school [full time] is the part-time or executive (EMBA) programme.”

Virginia Tech is not alone. Following its merger with Arizona State University, Thunderbird will no longer teach MBA students and Wake Forest recently announced it would move to all part-time MBA programmes, which employers increasingly view as on a par with the full-time MBA.

They join the likes of Miami University of Ohio in moving away from the traditional two-year MBA most US business schools offer.

Analysts and administrators say the global financial crisis has thrown this long-term trend into sharp relief: prospective students are increasingly unwilling to make the sacrifices that a full-time, two-year MBA demands — pausing their career, missing out on salary and promotions, and taking on considerable debt to fund their studies.

Instead, as with the increase in one-year, pre-experience Masters of Management programmes, students and schools are opting for curriculums that do not involve slowing down career momentum, wreaking havoc on potential earnings and taking a gamble on the job market two years down the line.

This movement is driven by a desire for more diversity in MBA offerings, says Dan LeClair, chief operating officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “One of the key dimensions of this diversity is flexibility and modulatory,” he says, noting the trend has emerged in the last three-to-five years. “The driver here is that more and more learners are seeking convenience and the opportunity to continue their education without having to drop out of the workforce.”

When he took over as dean of Wake Forest University School of Business earlier this year, Charles Iacovou says he did a “deep dive . . . to understand our current situation and the landscape around us”. In October, the school announced that it would cease offering its traditional full-time, two-year MBA programme, and instead focus on its part-time, weekend and evening MBA offerings for working professionals.

“We concluded that the best thing to do for our school is to simply focus our MBA efforts in delivery modes that don’t disrupt people’s careers,” he says. “The market tells us it’s harder and harder for people to quit their jobs and pursue education.”

Prof Iacovou says that while the financial crisis helped accelerate the trend that has led to more prospective students opting to stay in the workforce, “It is our understanding that those trends are long term and not just cyclical”.

That is in part because of the way talent acquisition and retention practices are changing, adds Prof Iacovou.

“In the past, I think more firms thought the best thing to do was to acquire some young talent and when it reached 27 to 28 years old . . . it was appropriate for that talent to walk away, pursue that degree and the firm thought it could either gain that talent back or get better talent,” he says. “Firms are now realising that internal talent retention is a better strategy.”

Andrew Robertson, chief executive of global advertising firm BBDO, agrees. Prospective students may not want to give up two years of income or take a break from career advancement, he says. “But also more and more employers would prefer that they didn’t step out [of the job] if they can avoid it.”

The pace of innovation, driven by rapid changes in technology, is driving that desire. “The speed that things are changing these days, there’s no question there’s a cost attached to that [two-year break] that is greater than just the time and the money,” says Mr Robertson.

Joe Huddle, a recruiter with DHR International, a global executive search firm, says part-time programmes also allow the employer to keep “a stable cord tied” to the employee who, in a typical MBA programme, is spending a lot of time making network connections.

“Memories fade and loyalty is fickle, and they could be easily wooed by a company coming on campus to recruit them,” he says. “It’s easier to succumb
to that in a full-time programme as opposed to being employed and fully engaged with the company while getting a[part-time] MBA.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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