B-School's New Weekend Warriors

When serious miles come between MBA programs and the students interested in them, some are choosing giant commuteseven by air

When it came to choosing a part-time MBA program, Darrin DeCosta didn't want to settle. Although he looked into programs near his home in San Francisco, he ultimately decided that the reputation and flexibility of the Weekend MBA program at top-ranked Chicago Graduate School of Business was worth the extra-long commute. Now, every Friday during the academic quarter, DeCosta hops on a 6 p.m. Southwest Airlines (LUV) flight that gets into Chicago just before midnight.

Six other Chicago part-time students also take the same flight.

Though far from the norm, long-distance commuters like DeCosta and company are on the rise at a number of top programs offering a weekend-only scheduling option—one sign that the part-time MBA ain't what it used to be.

Career Changer's Choice

Executive MBA programs, like full-time programs, have long drawn students from a national pool. According to a BusinessWeek survey done last year, 20% of students traveled more than 150 miles to attend their EMBA programs, up from 15% in 2001 (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/24/05, "Going the Extra Mile for an MBA").

But part-time MBA programs, designed for students who don't have the seven years of work experience typically required by EMBA programs, have typically catered to a more local market. Now, programs offering weekend classes make long-distance commuting an option for part-timers, too.

While conventional wisdom holds that part-time students are career-enhancers looking to advance within their current job track, Kristine Mackey, director of Chicago's part-time programs, says that "part-time students aren't all one flavor anymore. They're entrepreneurs and they're career switchers—it's a huge range of folks."

It's a Bargain

With employer sponsorship on the decline (at Chicago, less than half of part-time students get any form of tuition reimbursement), more part-timers are bearing the cost of B-school themselves—and they're demanding more, too. Today's part-time student wants all the flexibility of a part-time program plus access to the same professors, electives, and on-campus recruiting that full-time students get.

"Basically, they want to have their cake and eat it, too," says Dylan Stafford, admissions director of the part-time program at UCLA Anderson. And if local options don't cut it, an increasing number are willing to go the distance to find a program that does.

Jennifer Neha Sodha and Prem Babu live in Harriman, N.Y., 40 miles north of New York City, and although Jennifer considered attending NYU's Langone program, the couple ultimately decided to enroll together in the weekend program at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business. Even with the hassles of the 280-mile (each way) road commute, Babu says Maryland offered the combination of value, quality, and convenience the couple was looking for in an MBA program, with a smaller price tag.

Morning Mercy

At UCLA Anderson, the fly-in student phenomenon first began in 2004. Now, Stafford says 20% to 25% of students in the Saturday section typically commute 100 miles or more, including a handful from as far as Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon.

Stafford says UCLA has been actively working to make its part-time program a viable option for more out-of-area students. That includes experimenting with different schedules for electives, including a condensed, all-day Saturday schedule that would require only five trips to campus, instead of 10, and a planned reorganization of the EMBA schedule to allow for residential block electives that could co-enroll part-time students, too. And next year, the Saturday part-time classes will start a half-hour later, at 9 a.m., to better accommodate commuters.

The success of the weekend MBA-format has other top programs paying attention. Kellogg Associate Dean Vennie Lyons, director of the school's part-time program, says Kellogg has been looking into launching a weekend-only program for a few years now. "We're finding out that there are a lot of potential students who, because of travel commitments, can't take classes during the week," he says. "So to offer a set of classes for that particular group of students, that ends up being another market,"—not to mention the pool of potential students outside the Chicago area who might be attracted by the Kellogg name.

The bottom line is that the increasing flexibility of part-time programs—including the weekend MBA—is turning into a boon for schools and prospective students. But it raises another question: When is there time to mow the lawn?

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