Programs: Picking Up The Pace

First came the full-time, two-year MBA program. As its popularity grew, a weekend "executive" variation was developed for promotion-hungry managers whose companies often sponsored them. Then followed part-time degrees for students whose busy schedules could accommodate only limited classroom hours. Now comes the latest innovation, the drive-through MBA -- miniaturized programs that let students earn degrees in half the time.

The trend started in Europe, where top business schools like INSEAD began offering intensive, full-time programs in as little as 10 months. Now some European schools are also offering a one-year "pre-experience" masters in management for recent undergrads. The trend is coming to the U.S., where schools scramble to attract fence-sitting candidates who hesitate to take two years off from work but are also wary of spending half a decade pursuing a degree part-time.

Schools such as Georgia State University and Babson College have developed "fast-track" part-time programs and professional MBAs that allow students to keep their paychecks while getting their degree in two years. Typically, such programs involve weekend and evening courses, as well as a distance-learning component on the Internet, to wrap classes up in the allotted time.

There are also "accelerated" full-time programs, such as the one offered by Drexel University in Philadelphia, that confer an MBA in as little as a year, and even mini-MBAs that award certificates but no degree. "It plays to the pace of the world we're in today," says Brad Bays, MBA programs director at Ohio's Miami University. His school scrapped its two-year MBA last year and replaced it with an intensive program completed in 14 straight months.

But are the drive-through MBAs the real deal? Skeptics dislike the intensity of the fast-paced programs, which may not be suitable for younger students who need more time than seasoned execs to absorb difficult concepts. And the rigid structure often required of these abbreviated degrees leaves little room for electives.

The University of Denver's Daniels College of Business shuttered its accelerated full-time program in 2003 but kept its traditional two-year program for just that reason. "It just did not work for us," complains Stephen Haag, associate dean for graduate programs. "We found ourselves making sacrifices on the curriculum side, and students making sacrifices on the learning side."

Shorter programs also often carry the stigma of being "MBA Lites." With limited time for advanced courses, students in some programs may get a grounding in the basics, but that's it. And most accelerated programs lack a summer internship component, an important tool companies use to scout potential hires. "Generally, recruiters don't like them," says Maury Hanigan, an MBA recruitment consultant.

The new accelerated programs are different from previous niche products such as the executive and part-time MBA and executive ed courses, which have become popular enough to eat into full-time enrollment. If anything, the new programs are designed to appeal to a new demographic -- people unwilling to make the investment in time and money required by existing B-school alternatives.

Rutgers University now offers a mini-MBA, a 12-week certificate program in which students earn three credits toward a full-blown Rutgers masters for $2,495 -- a fraction of what a typical two-year program costs. Abe Weiss, director of Rutgers' Center for Management Development, says such programs may even encourage students to apply to a traditional two-year program when they're finished: "We're trying to whet people's appetites."

The proliferation of choices facing prospective business students these days is already daunting, and with the advent of drive-through MBAs it will become even more so. But to lure its share of applicants in a fragmented marketplace, a B-school today must offer a complete suite of programs -- including those that offer instant gratification.

By Lindsey Gerdes in New York

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