In the past, lists of the nation’s leading MBA programs have been dominated by the same prominent colleges and universities. In recent years, however, a large number of “second-tier” schools have adopted specialized MBA programs that enable students to focus on niche areas of business management. While many of these programs offer unparalleled training for students who wish to pursue careers in a particular sector, some educational experts have noted that specialized degrees also have their limitations.
According to annual rankings compiled by US News & World Report, The Economist and other notable publications, recognition of the country’s best MBA programs has long been relegated to a handful of select institutions. In December 2011, CNN Money reported that, for the second consecutive year, Harvard Business School offered the finest MBA program in the United States. Other high-ranking MBA programs were offered at Stanford Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Placement on these lists is usually determined by a composite of students’ GMAT scores, program acceptance rates and post-graduation employment rates.
In order to lure top applicants away from these prestigious programs, less prominent schools have begun to offer specialized MBA degrees. These include the wine MBA program at Sonoma State University; the aviation management program at Embry-Little Aeronautical University; and the music, entertainment and sports management program offered at UCLA. Alison Damast of Bloomberg Businessweek recently noted that specialty programs like these have risen 11 percent over the last five years; during that same period, traditional MBA programs dipped 2 percent, according to data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). “Schools are trying ways to differentiate themselves, because there are hundreds of MBA programs out there,” said AACSB board chairman Jan Williams. “If you can take some portion of your program that specializes in an area students can’t get anywhere else, you make your program more attractive.”
One institution that currently offers multiple specialized programs is Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, where students can earn specialized MBA degrees related to nursing, medical services management, public health, biotechnology, government, communications and design leadership. A dual MBA-engineering program is also available. Like standard MBA programs, Carey’s specialized degrees require students to complete a core sequence of business management and administration courses. However, students are additionally required to take elective classes related to their degree’s specialization. Biotechnology MBA students, for instance, must take courses in biostatistics and informatics in addition to finance and accounting classes.
Despite the steady rise of specialized programs offered at American schools, some academic experts warn of the inherent risks of earning this type of degree. Francesca Levy of Bloomberg Businessweek recently noted that specialized MBAs lose their value if their corresponding industry experiences an economic decline. She also argued that prestigious universities are typically connected with a higher number of recruiters from top employers than second-tier schools – and as a result, students who attend the former are much likelier to land solid post-graduation jobs.
Specialized MBAs can be a very valuable investment for students, provided they understand the ‘employment uncertainties’ that they entail. But while academics have not universally warmed to the idea, Businessweek contributor Francesca Di Meglio argues that business insiders have embraced specialized degree programs because they graduate trained specialists (rather than individuals with a broad understanding of business management but no specific skills). And unlike traditional MBAs that are ingrained in theory, specialized programs complement classroom studies with a substantial amount of hands-on practicum.
Whether specialized degrees represent the future of education or merely a passing academic fad remains to be seen. But over the last five years, an increasing number of students have forgone traditional MBAs in favor of specialized degrees – and if this trend continues, then more integrated MBA programs are likely to emerge at second-tier schools across the country.