Customizing the MBA degree for its next 100 years

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Denise Andrus, an at-home mom, knows she'll be ready to get back into the workforce in a few years. So in the quiet wee hours of the morning, in bathrobe and slippers, Ms. Andrus is staring into the glow of her computer screen - working toward her master's in business administration.

Andrus figures an MBA will be her "get-back-into-the-workforce card." So she snags time on the Internet to fulfill degree requirements from Jones International University, an accredited "virtual university."

Brian Davis, on the other hand, heads upstairs to a conference room every Monday after overseeing the high-tech factory floor at data-storage giant EMC Corp. in Franklin, Mass. Waiting there is a Northeastern University professor who treks from Boston to teach subjects like marketing and finance.

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When it comes to post-graduate education, the venerable MBA degree is celebrating its 100th anniversary and entering the new millennium by bursting the confines of the campus classroom, morphing into new forms, and spreading American-style business practices worldwide.

By every measure the MBA has been a success. Its impact has been profound, helping professionalize and systematize American business. This year the number of MBA graduates may approach 100,000 - about one-quarter of all master's degrees granted, analysts estimate.

It wasn't always that way.

It's been a century since Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., shunned convention by forming the Tuck School of Business. At the time, business was a dirty word in the academy. The closest thing to teaching business at the time was a standard course called "political economy."

Even after the ice broke, growth was slow. But when World War II ended, herds of returning GIs filled the MBA ranks. Between 1950 and 1975, about 20 to 30 new business schools were added to universities annually.

Some 1,200 to 1,900 business schools (depending on how the programs are counted) bestowed the MBA degree on more than 97,000 business graduates in 1997, experts estimate.

Recently, though, students' ardor to attend school full-time for an MBA has cooled, in part for fear of missing an opportunity in a fast-paced dot-com world.

Now, part-time MBA students like Mr. Davis and Andrus - as well as foreign students in the US - are the new target audience for universities that tout customized programs.

Women, too. Until the 1970s, the MBA was a nearly all-male preserve. By 1997, there were 38,000 women MBA graduates - about 38 percent of the total.

"This is the best experience I can imagine," says Happy Hazelton, a former investment banker and now a full-time student at Tuck School. "There's nothing holding back women in this program," she says.

But the newest trend is the emerging online gold rush as e-learning companies race to put their own proprietary MBA programs online. They hope to capture a share of what is believed to be a huge overseas market for American-style business education. The idea: Offer the masses who can't afford to come to the US a big-name MBA.

Companies targeting overseas students count on star professors at institutions like the London School of Economics or Columbia University in New York to produce online MBA courses with cachet. They see potential particularly in the developing capitalist economies of Asia.

"Nine out of 10 people just don't have the time or money to spend an extended period of time on campus," says Charles Hickman, vice president for academic affairs at Quisic, an e-learning company in Los Angeles that is planning an online MBA.

Paul Danos, dean of Tuck, agrees. But he also foresees a future full-time MBA program that takes just one year.

"The full-time [two-year] residential program will be seen as the highest value-added experience," Dr. Danos says. "But the market is so vast there's bound to be electronic solutions" for those who can't afford that.

As for companies bringing MBA programs to their offices, costs that can approach $30,000 per student are often considered a strategic tool to give employees a fresh career path - and keep them from jumping ship.

Davis, a process engineer by training, expects that the MBA he will earn during three years of night classes will vault him into the ranks of EMC management.

"The only thing standing between this company and huge growth is being able to find enough good senior managers," he says. "I want to be one of them."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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