Crafting Specialized Business Degrees

by Yvonne F. Brown

With full time applications on the decline, many business schools are crafting specialized MBA programs such as healthcare, real estate, sports management, and finance. Some schools, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), have found a way to increase student enrollment by focusing their MBA curriculums on preparing students for specific business careers. In an article titled “Specializing in Success: Specialized MBA Programs are Meeting the Demand for Focused Grads” Michael Knetter, dean of UWM’s School of Business, says, “The students best suited for the program are those with a clear idea of what they want to do when they grow up. We think this type of person will get the most out of an MBA degree.”

According to Business Week, UWM had experienced a 30% drop in applications in three years and expected the situation to get worse. That was the impetus for Knetter’s scrapping the general management MBA curriculum altogether in 2004 and replacing it with the specialized program, which increased enrollment.

Other schools, both here and abroad, have taken the same route with mixed results. Some European schools are also taking the specialized route. Sean Rickard, director of full-time MBA programs at England’s Cranfield School of Management, says, “I don’t agree with it at all. The MBA is a post-experience qualification that was originally designed for people around age 30 who are preparing for moving into a senior, strategic, general management role. They’re already supposed to have some functional management skills. They’ve probably been an accountant or project manager and are preparing to operate at the senior level. If you put two programs together, you’re devaluing both.”

Dr. John Mather, executive director of Masters Programs at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, has a different take on specialized MBAs: “An MBA in finance means that you’re specializing or taking a significant number of electives in finance. Some schools offer a master of science in finance, but an MBA has core requirements for accreditation. How the students want to format their second year or their elective courses after the core is up to them. Tepper allows MBA students to select electives or concentrations during their second year, and many take three or four to get a more well rounded business education. We introduce the concept of tracks in collaborative partnership with other colleges on the Carnegie Mellon campus, as we want our graduates to experience other disciplines.

“So we allow MBA students to migrate into other schools to interact with faculty,” he continues. “Graduate students research generally with intellectual capital that gives them opportunities to prepare for working. Carnegie Mellon doesn’t call this a specialized MBA, but it allows students to specialize in what they see as their future career path. Students avail themselves of the talent available on campus through seven tracks, three of which are entrepreneurship, technology and innovation…there are some degrees out there that are called a master of science in finance. We have a very specialized masters degree that I run in New York City called a master of science in computational finance.”

In “Degrees Go for Specialist Redesign,” an article by Ian Grayson for, Carol Stephenson, dean of Canada’s Richard Ivey School of Business, explained,  “The school recognized that the old-model MBA isn’t working as well as it could to produce graduates with the skills required for the modern business world. We looked at the business-school landscape and realized that the traditional model did not deliver more.  So we decided to turn it inside out; to start with the goal of producing cross-enterprise leaders and to build from there.”

Specialized Degrees And Corporate Value

Rickard doesn’t believe specialized MBAs add value to corporations. “What’s going to happen is that if you want to give someone training in finance, as well as some of the management subjects you should be dealing with under an MBA, you’ll give them half as much in both cases,” he says. “So you’re neither being as clued up on finance if you get an MSc in finance and you’ll not be as well-schooled in general management subjects as if you did a full MBA. You’re just devaluing yourself in both the MBA and the finance course.”

Mather has a different take on the subject: “Carnegie Mellon’s approach is it’s an MBA according to accreditation. We have a very rigorous core for an MBA, which cuts across all functional areas of business, and then the students take the electives. They have a choice of electives in functional areas, and many take the four concentrations of finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, and strategy. That, generally, is an MBA.

“Another really strong track, global enterprise management, allows students to take international and global classes with the final semester spent overseas in a partner school in Germany,” he adds. “That’s a standard MBA. Five years ago, we introduced the idea of the tracks. If you’re going to be in business today, you’re going to confront IT, R&D, global operations, global markets, global financing, etc., so why not consider tracks which still offer orientation for a business career. [This is] especially true if you’re going to be working in a company that deals with technology. Pharmaceuticals, medical devices, healthcare, Internet operations, and so on today are global and very technically based.  Tracks prepare you for that. The ability to understand these concepts is really critical today, so corporations truly value the specialized business degree.”

Revenue Generator Or Fad?

Asked if the specialized MBA might be a trend or fad, Rickard says, “I think so, because the MBA is a popular qualification, and universities believe they can attract more students if they stick the letters MBA on the front. What they are doing is moving away from that traditional idea of a post experience qualification and muddling it up with a post graduate qualification. So I expect an MSc in finance to be a post graduate qualification and an MBA to be post experience.”

Cranfield was mentioned in “Specializing in Success: Specialized MBA Programs Are Meeting the Demand for Focused Grads” an article in Graduate Management News, because it offers MS degrees in innovation, leadership, international HR management, finance and management, logistics and supply chain, and strategic marketing.  Rickard doesn’t consider these MBA programs. “They’re MSc programs, he says. “Our MBA program is a pure strategic general management program. Those courses are offered within the school of management, but students who attend them are not MBA students.”

Mather notes, “I’m not calling it a MBA finance or MBA marketing. Our master of science in computational finance is Carnegie Mellon’s version, with all the core competencies of a regular MBA along with the optional electives.”

The Future – Two Views

“The traditional idea of an MBA, that post experience qualification, has great value in itself and I greatly regret the trend towards specialist MBAs.” says Rickard

Mather counters, “I think the MBA degree continues to increase in registrations and we’re in an area where there are some changes. Many MBAs are becoming more core business fundamentals and global business oriented. While there are numerous strong MBA degrees emerging worldwide, the US still offers the majority and has a reputation for strong MBA degrees. The MBA degree last changed in the early 1960s.  We’re at another point in the product life cycle. Another 50 years have passed; we’re right at the cusp of the next MBA.”