MBAs for Working Stiffs

Growing demand has schools beefing up part-time programs

What do you call a chemist who pilots a 1999 Cessna 172R between Lincoln, Neb., and Chicago every weekend so he can someday run his own business? One very determined part-time MBA student. Mark Zieg, 34, is a drug formulator for Novartis Pharmaceuticals and a weekend student at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. Each week until March, 2003, he will fly a total of seven hours to and from classes. "It's the only top school that's within reach," he says.

It sounds hectic--and prompts the question: Why bother? But last year, 120,000 fully employed people did the same thing, says the International Association for Management Education, better known by its old acronym, AACSB.

A part-time program is a compelling option for anyone who believes he or she can benefit from an MBA but who can't afford to forfeit two years of steady paychecks or miss opportunities at work. And if you want to get into a top-rated B-school--half of BusinessWeek's top 30 full-time MBA programs offer part-time degrees--you're more likely to be accepted to the part-time program than the full-time counterpart.

Remember, too, that since part-timers' portion of the MBA market has grown, schools have been pouring more resources into their programs and making changes to better meet students' needs. Last year, of 200,000 MBA students, 63.7% were part-timers, says the AACSB. And according to BusinessWeek's inaugural survey of 214 part-time programs in the fall of 2000, 22,210 part-time MBAs graduated last year, up 14.5% from 1997 (table).

After decades of playing second fiddle to full-time programs, part-time plans are bulking up. Schools are tailoring curriculums to what students want to learn, and their course offerings are more innovative. They're also adding Web-enabled courses and a wider choice of electives.

STRONGER TIES. The changes are designed not only to lure part-time candidates but to retain them once they've enrolled. At Washington University's Olin School of Business in St. Louis, for example, just 55% of part-timers graduated in 1995, when Stuart Greenbaum became dean. So he revamped the program. To increase students' sense of belonging to a community, he put them into groups that move through the first four terms together. That allows them to make friends and network.

Greenbaum also cut the number of required courses and gave students more leeway to design their program. The Olin School broke its school year into minisemesters and added weekend classes, which gave students scheduling flexibility and let them get a degree in three years. Today, Olin's graduation rate is close to 90%.

Other schools have condensed their programs further to attract time-pressed professionals. Students at Lehigh University's B-school in Bethlehem, Pa., can zip through in 2 1/2 years rather than 3 1/2 Last September, Baruch College in New York added a two-year program.

Aware of work demands on their students, other programs are coming up with more convenient class schedules. Last year, Fordham University in New York began offering a handful of morning classes, from 7:30 to 9:30, before students are drained of energy at work. This fall, the morning offerings will double, to 10.

Meanwhile, Pepperdine University's Graziado School of Business has expanded its menu of concentrations. The new options introduced last fall include entrepreneurship and managing organizational change, which focuses on such situations as transition to New Economy businesses.

As schools aim to better adapt to their students' lifestyles, online learning has proven a sound and even revenue-building solution. At Indiana University, the Kelley School of Business' Direct Online MBA program, which was launched in August, 1999, has 60 students enrolled so far, including an officer on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. In the fall, it plans to accept 120 students. The two-year program costs $32,400.

The growth of "distance learning" programs gives students a wider choice of schools without regard to location. Jocelin Kagan, who runs a corporate-communications firm in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been enrolled in the MBA program of Henley Management College in Henley-on-Thames, England, since 1998. Kagan, who meets with a group of seven other Henley students in Johannesburg, used to get her coursework via textbooks. Recently, she has begun to enjoy the efficiency and convenience of getting her coursework online. "E-learning crunches time down enormously," says Kagan, who will graduate in May, 2002.

Where many part-time programs fall short is in placement services. Schools are reluctant to expend resources helping part-timers find summer internships because their first priority is finding summer jobs for full-time students. This policy leaves some part-timers, such as those who are switching to full-time status, out in the cold. And schools are leery of helping part-timers land a sweet offer upon graduation lest they get on the wrong side of students' current employers--especially if the company is footing the bill.

Pressure is growing on B-schools to do more with placement. The schools in BusinessWeek's survey said that 25% of their students would use the career office to get new jobs. At the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson Graduate School of Business, 90% of the 180 part-time students--all employed--who entered last fall said they plan to change jobs. So far, Anderson allows part-timers to use the career center, but in order to interview on campus for a full-time job, they need an O.K. from their employers.

If you're considering a part-time program, you'll be in good company. The programs attract a more diverse and experienced group of professionals than full-time programs, according to BusinessWeek's survey. Some 36% of the students are female, 14% hold advanced degrees, and 11% are minorities. The 83,000 students covered by the survey have an average 5.5 years of work experience, compared with 4.2 years for full-time students. Their average age was 30 years, vs. 27.7 for full-timers.

But competition for places may be getting stiffer. After three years of flat growth in applications, a result of the strong labor market, schools are seeing an uptick. Last fall, Pepperdine saw a sudden rise in applications for spring enrollment. And Chicago's winter/spring applications climbed 18% from last year. Whether you go the full-time or part-time route, on paper the degree is no different.

By Mica Schneider

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