Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is the MBA under attack, too?

The MBA: Evolving and Adapting
Press reports in the past year have occasionally announced the dismal state of the law degree. They've shown the downward trends in law school applications and the widespread lack of opportunities for new law graduates. And there is a lively, fiery debate about what is and what should be a legal education. A law student spends three years in school and, after assuming huge debt loads and making boundless financial sacrifices, graduates into the great unknown.

Should she head for the dungeons of corporate law? Should he explore other channels (the public sector, e.g.), where limited opportunities for sustained employment exist? What should they do, when legal positions have dwindled in large numbers across the country in recent years? Should law schools take the lead in assisting their graduates? (Some have done just that in the past year, by hiring some of their own graduates or subsidizing them in their first-year jobs.) Should law schools spearhead a radical change in legal education by eliminating the third year of classes and permit students to launch careers with one less year of burdensome debt?

Law deans, judges, attorneys, prospective students and law professors are in the midst of a vigorous discussion about the future of the law degree and the roles and responsibilities law schools will have. (See Third-year Overhaul at NYU, Law Schools Worth the Money?)

Is the MBA similarly under attack and similarly encountering a dismal outlook? Are there similar declines in applications (to business school), decreasing opportunities across the board, and calls to contract two years of full-time business school into a fast-track, 10-12-month degree?

Or is this an apples-and-oranges debate?

Trends in applications and enrollment at law schools and business schools run along different, sometimes similar tracks. They are both affected by various factors--some the same, others very different.  While law schools experienced application declines over the past decade, business schools did so, too.  The recession and financial crisis had impact on both. Yet applications at some business schools began to rise a year or two after the peak crisis years of 2008-09, partly because some young professionals decided to try to "wait out" those years of turmoil in productive ways, by returning to school.

Both degrees are influenced by stark business factors. Banks, insurance companies, and hedge funds reduce staff quickly (and often rashly) when there is a decline in revenues, deal flow or clients. Law firms  experience a concurrent decline, too, and reduce staff or decide to hire fewer associates.  And reductions, lay-offs and bleak opportunities discourage prospects from applying to law and business schools. 

Both are influenced by the mind-boggling, irrational increases in tuition and fees.  Candidates for the MBA or JD will often have the interest, aptitude and time commitment. They will dream of coursework in legal theory, contracts, property, accounting, corporate finance or business policy. They will aspire to become partners in corporate law firms or consulting firms. But they can't rationalize the costs and the likely absorption of too much debt.  

But factors that influence financial institutions--like reform and regulation--might have a different kind of impact on law firms, which might step up to assist in regulatory compliance. Other factors--like a trend for companies to out-source basic legal chores to low-cost sites overseas-- have a detrimental impact on corporate law firms in the U.S.

Still, the swirl of nerves and a trace of panic that might be usurping some law deans doesn't yet seem to be doing the same in business schools. That might be partly due to the fact that business deans are accustomed to change and almost always encounter uncertainty about their purposes in the future.

MBA application trends at top schools slid significantly in the crisis years, but in the past year or so, there are fleeting signs of an upturn.  Consortium school UCLA, for example, had a 22% increase in MBA applications last year.  After a two-year decline, applications to Stanford Business School rose this year. (They fell below 7,000, but are approaching that magic threshold again.)

Two years ago, applications to Columbia Business School fell 19%--a cause for concern and something the school blamed on the languishing state of Wall Street, since the school has always had a bustling pipeline of MBAs going into banking and finance.  Yet applications rose 9% last year and seem to be on an upward trend again (above 6,000)--thanks in part to a more settled state on the Street. Applications at Consortium school Dartmouth have increased the past two years, and Consortium school Yale will likely boost applications above 3,000 as it moves into a new facility.

Recent reports show over 286,000 GMAT tests were scored last year--an 11% increase. That's partly attributed to the large number of foreign students interested in the MBA (16% increase).  In fact, only a third of the tests taken are from U.S.-based candidates, proving how the soaring interest from international students has helped to boost or sustain interest in the MBA.

However, a few other factors might explain why the MBA is not yet under attack any more than it has always been:

1.  Law schools, all of a sudden, find they must explore ways to reinvent themselves or redefine legal education.  Business schools, on the other hand, over the past two decades have routinely tried to reinvent, redefine and innovate--some more successfully than others, some more radically than others.  Many contend business schools still haven't kept up with the changing business times sufficiently, but few accuse them of not trying.

Witness the changes in curriculum and core courses at top schools every other year. Witness, too, how schools hopped at the chance to understand e-commerce and Internet businesses. Notice the grand push by the same schools to require international experience and courses in ethics, decision-making, and risk management. 

2.  Certain industry sectors still require the MBA degree as if it were a certification. They see specific value in the MBA and hire from the business-school pool routinely each year.  They include consulting, investment banking, and many firms in investment management, trading and research.  As long as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey thrive, it appears, they will a large batch of MBAs from top schools year after year to fill the ranks and to offset expected attrition. And as long as Goldman and McKinsey hire, others in the industry will follow suit. 

3.  Business schools try to respond to economic and business trends and to the voice of a large corporate constituency.  They listen to what business cycles suggest or what business leaders look for in a next generation of leaders.  They respond by revamping curriculum, introducing new courses in, say, entrepreneurship or international development, or by teaching the lessons learned from a recent crisis or marketing debacle. Some respond well; some respond inadequately, but most try.

4.  The influx of foreign students has changed the face of most top schools.  It's no longer unusual for top schools to have large numbers of students from India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Latin America.  They recruit internationals, and they have successfully rationalized the benefit of a diverse, world-oriented student body.

Foreign countries have been eager to send some high-potential junior managers to MBA schools like Virginia, Michigan or USC to learn from the gurus of management and finance--with hopes they will return to their home countries to fill the management gaps of a growing, developing economy.  Many have observed or written about China's obsession speed up economic develop by hiring trained middle managers to run an exploding (at least until recently) business growth. An MBA education, especially from a U.S.-based school, provides a solution or a quick fix.

If the topic is business schools and MBAs, there will always be debate about the relevance of MBA degrees and uncertainty about how schools encounter evolving business scenarios. Seldom a day goes by without a business-school dean grappling hard with how the school will adapt and fend itself from the factions who attack it.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN: The MBA--Remaining Relevant, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment