Part Time B School Is A Full Time Grind

For two straight years, Win Billingsley arose before the sun. A vice-president at AT&T Global Information Solutions, he routinely dragged himself out of bed at 4 a.m. and cracked open a mind-numbing statistics or economics textbook for his part-time MBA studies--before leaving for work. Billingsley finally graduated from Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill., last year. While the knowledge he gained has served him well, earning his degree was at times an ordeal. "If you don't have the stamina, you will never get through a part-time program while working full-time," says Billingsley.

Juggling family obligations, a demanding job, and study for an advanced degree has become an obsession for many in today's competitive workplace. Indeed, part-time enrollment in MBA programs is at record levels. In 1991, 91,086 people enrolled part-time. This past academic year, over 118,000 students--about 64% of all people seeking MBAs--studied in part-time graduate programs, according to the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

PROMOTION? Unlike Billingsley, who can boast an MBA from a top-notch program, many students attend part-time courses at local schools that lack national and, in some cases, even regional reputations. The payback for the degree is often uncertain. Yet if nothing else, record enrollments show that the downsides of a part-time MBA program continue to be overshadowed by students' desire to learn more about business, gain another credential on a resume, and facilitate job promotion--though the latter reward is hardly guaranteed.

Of the 420 respondents to a recent AACSB survey, 88% (371 schools) offer MBA courses to part-time students, luring weary but ambitious managers and employees to mostly weeknight classes. Part-time study can be a bargain. Students at Wayne State University in Detroit, which boasts one of the largest part-time MBA enrollments in the U.S., can get the degree for as little as $5,000--if they have already accumulated enough preliminary credits to waive some of the basic classes. Generally, the price tag for a part-time program is about $15,000--less than half the cost of most full-time MBAs. But at the more prestigious schools, such as Northwestern, tuition for both part-time and full-time programs is about the same, a hefty $40,000.

Time is often more critical an issue than cost, since many part-timers receive some tuition reimbursement from their employer. "School basically uses up all of your free time," says Richard Westenberger, a senior financial analyst at Kraft Foods, who is enrolled in the University of Chicago's evening MBA program. He studies whenever he can, plus spending 15 to 25 hours per week in the classroom, doing homework and reading assignments, and participating in team projects--all crucial aspects of part-time regimens.

This level of commitment makes many part-time students try to end the anguish as quickly as possible, often in two or three years, by loading up on courses. Others avoid the crash-and-burn approach by extending the time to as long as five years. But even students taking only one course per quarter say part-time programs are challenging. "The euphoria of being accepted into a top-flight business school began to die out after the first year, and I began wondering if it was really worth it," recalls David Hirsch, a vice-president at Smith Barney and a 1991 graduate of Kellogg's part-time program.

GOOD CONTACTS. Like many graduates, Hirsch's degree failed to get him either a quick promotion or an immediate pay raise. Yet Hirsch, who completed the program in five years, wasn't only interested in moving up the ladder. He says he battled through the 20-credit program in search of less-tangible rewards. "The payoff had more to do with indirect benefits, especially having more awareness of management issues and better chances to network," says Hirsch, who adds that the program exposed him to regional and even international contacts.

In most cases, part-timers get pretty much the same business basics that full-time MBA students get. Indeed, many program directors claim the core curriculums are identical for part-time and full-time tracks. At Northwestern, the same faculty members teach the same courses in the full-time and part-time formats. But Kellogg's practice is hardly the norm when it comes to part-time program faculty.

Consider the Keller Graduate School of Management in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., which houses the sixth-largest part-time program by enrollment (2,069 students). Nontenured or visiting professors, known as adjuncts, teach 95% of the part-time classes. Five other programs that rank among the 10 largest by enrollment have adjuncts teaching 60% or more of the curriculum. Even at New York University's highly acclaimed part-time program, adjuncts are responsible for 36% of the courses.

It's not only the teachers who differ. Part-time students tend to be older--the average age is a tad over 30. Also, they're often married with children and have more work experience than full-time students. The vast majority--about 90%--are employed full-time and want immediate results in the workplace, a desire that can have a strong influence on an instructor's teaching methods. "There is a greater demand by part-time students for how they can use the information collected in a given class in the workplace the next day," explains Doug Andrews, director of the evening MBA program at the University of Southern California. "As a result, faculty members are more conscious of making applications to the workplace more obvious."

The most persistent difference between the two groups, according to most students and deans, comes in their participation in extracurricular activities and social interaction. "I had no time for social life outside the classroom, and I barely met my classmates," says Mary Farrell, a senior vice-president at PaineWebber and a 1976 graduate of the part-time program at NYU's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.

Time constraints can often hinder part-time students' ability to engage in extracurricular activities, which can put a crimp on making friends and networking. "The only thing part-time students are doing in our program is going to school," says Robert Nachtmann, director of Master's programs at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. "It is not fully enriching because they have the mind-set of commuters."

Another key drawback: Few schools allow part-time students, who usually receive tuition reimbursement of 10% to 100% from their employers, to use the institutions' placement operations to find new jobs. There are some exceptions, including the University of Chicago, but most schools believe they should not help employees leave companies that are footing at least part of the bill for their education.

Because gf his status as a part-time student, Jonathan Wishnick was kept from bidding for on-campus recruiting interviews at the University of Chicago--even though he received no tuition reimbursement. But that did not change his overall view of the B-school experience. "Other than the recruiting issue, I was very pleased with the University of Chicago," says Wishnick, who claims that his MBA has given him the tools necessary to start his own business. "The opportunities for education are exactly the same in the part-time and full-time programs." Indeed, many students say they would go through it all again--even if they do have to rise regularly before the sun.

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