Amid shifting priorities in the business community and demands for specialization from students, MBA programs across the nation have found a need to prove themselves lately. A 2017 Forbes article detailed the recent string of program closures and listed multiple reasons for the trend.
Yet at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, the Full-time MBA and its cousins (Online MBA (OMBA), Executive MBA (EMBA), MBA for Professionals & Managers (MBA.PM), and IBEAR) have been growing in national stature. In October, the three-year-old Online MBA was ranked #1 by Poets & Quants, and this month the program rose from #4 to #3 in the Princeton Review rankings.
Marshall’s secret to success? Incorporating multiple-perspectives, making hard choices and thinking strategically. Over the past year, Gareth James, E. Morgan Stanley Chair in Business Administration and Professor of Data Sciences and Operations, and Suh-Pyng Ku, Vice Dean for Graduate Programs, led a faculty committee, resulting in a total revamp of the full time MBA curriculum. The committee joined students, alumni and corporate advisors in an extensive discussion on what a twenty-first century MBA program should be teaching. There was universal agreement that change is a constant and the need for improvement is continuous.
“As it is, more than 50 percent of our MBA students live outside L.A. We’re already national. Next, we want to be international.” --Sandra Chrystal, Vice Dean for Online Education and Professor of Clinical Business Communication.
According to Ku and James, who served as committee chair, students have many reasons for choosing a USC Marshall MBA program, including location, USC, and the Trojan Family. But high on any list are relevant curriculum and preparation for career change and enhancement. Embedded in curricular innovation are the key learning objectives of personal and professional development, mastering business fundamentals, analytical and critical thinking, and facilitating team learning.
The committee designed a program that gives Marshall students enough time to master the information they are taught, and repeated opportunities to practice teamwork, leadership, and unstructured problem solving. This meant restructuring the sequence of classes to enhance the accounting, finance, data science and managerial economics curricula, emphasizing communication and data analytics as requisite subjects, and adding classes on structured analysis for unstructured problems and professional values to jumpstart student’s self-awareness and self-discovery.
The process was not unlike the one Marshall used in 2013-14 to develop its Online MBA curriculum. A team was organized to do marketing research, so that by 2015, when the OMBA was launched, they knew how to approach creating the best online MBA in the US.
A world gone digital
Led by Sandra Chrystal, Vice Dean for Online Education and Professor of Clinical Business Communication, the OMBA taskforce devoted two years to crisscrossing the US, leading business focus groups, meeting with alumni and current MBA students and visiting other leading MBA schools. Their research led to a program based on the latest subject matter content, technological learning tools, and practical skills in virtual communication and analytics.
“It’s a curriculum for the 21st century digital economy,” said Chrystal. “This has become the way business is done. Now it is the way teaching is done.”
To accommodate this shift, instructional designers and video production experts were enlisted to help train and support 30 Marshall faculty members who were teaching online in three masters degrees, nine non-credit courses, and five graduate electives. “As a result of their online experience, many professors initiated a flip in their residential classes,” said Chrystal. “Online education is now informing traditional education.”
The Marshall Online MBA integrates asynchronous learning, synchronous live class time, group work and a one-week immersion course on campus. Six courses are team-taught by two to four professors from different academic departments. Students learn from multiple perspectives—faculty, corporate partners and each other; they average 11-years’ work experience. Through the program, students gain management and leadership knowledge and skills they can use immediately on the job, such as working on virtual teams. “Everything is applicable,” Chrystal said.
Is online learning the solution to the decline of the MBA?
When it launched in 2015, the OMBA program had an enrollment of 16 students and a vision for scale. The second class had 28, and in 2016, 36 students graduated. By 2017, the class numbered 48. “It’s phenomenal, Chrystal said. “In 2019, we’ll grow to two sections starting in August. We want no more than 50 students in a class section.”
Choosing those students has become the challenge as the Marshall program gains a national reputation, and top-notch students compete for spots. According to Chrystal, the most recent incoming class has an average salary of $114,000 and extensive work experience. Many already had an existing graduate degree when they enrolled in the program. “They’re experienced and sophisticated,” she said. “We see quality candidates and we want those students. Our alumni want them too.”
Through this lens, Chrystal has a different perspective on reports that MBA programs have been declining. “We hear the reasons for decline are that students would rather do specialty master’s programs, or corporations have cut funding to MBA students,” she said. “But today corporations are increasing support for top online programs. They’re applauding online approaches because they marry a 21st-century curriculum to a delivery that doesn’t require employees to miss work.”
According to Chrystal, “Online learning could assuage the decline of the MBA.”
Still, for those interested in specialty master’s programs, Marshall faculty members have developed online programs ranging from Global Supply Chain Management to Management in Library and Information Science (MMLIS) and Business Taxation for Working Professionals (MBT-WP). These degrees also rank high in third party evaluations. Next up is the first industry-specific online master’s, the MS in Food Industry Leadership, which will launch in January 2019.
The momentum is decidedly growing behind online programs at Marshall, and for Chrystal, the best affirmation of their direction is that students and alumni praise the programs, and other universities have begun to see them as models. Increasingly a host for visits from other business schools, the online team also is invited to conferences limited to leaders in the field.
“Through these business school conversations,” Chrystal said, “we are learning from and affecting wider academic conversations.”
In addition to a new asynchronous library of online modules to share on campus, Marshall plans to launch an online certificate of business courses designed for non-MBA graduate students. “We want to provide USC and other graduate students not seeking an MBA with the opportunity to earn a business fundamentals certificate created by our respected faculty.”
Beyond this, the plan is to go global. “As it is, more than 50 percent of our MBA students live outside LA,” Chrystal said. “We’re already national. Next, we want to be international.”