How MBA Programs Are Changing With the Market

Article Icon Article
Wednesday, March 8, 2023
By Wiley
Photo by iStock/BalanceFormcreative
Hybrid, accelerated, and customizable skills-based programs are meeting the demands of today’s students and employers.

Sponsored Content

  • Current and prospective students expect schools to offer online and hybrid programs to accommodate their needs for flexible scheduling.
  • Employers are looking for graduates who not only have technical competencies, but also have mastered soft skills such as writing, critical thinking, public speaking, and teamwork.
  • To be competitive, business schools must offer programs in a variety of formats, provide students with in-demand skills, and differentiate their programs through customization.

Due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, MBA programs around the world are experiencing significant disruption. Enrollment has declined, international students are not traveling as far, and more candidates are opting for flexible MBA and specialized master’s programs that focus on relevant, real-world skills.

MBA programs must evolve to meet the demands of modern students and provide the skills graduates need to thrive in today’s business environments. Schools can’t hope to stand out from competitors simply by offering online and hybrid coursework. In fact, fully online programs have become the norm, and most learners even expect them to be available. Today’s students are seeking flexibility that goes beyond scheduling. They require more customizable programs and training in specialized skills.

At the educational company Wiley, we surveyed 151 deans, chairs, and administrators to learn more about today’s MBA programs and to ask where there is the most need for change. Respondents identified their most significant challenges:

  • Sixty-one percent struggle with declining enrollment.
  • Fifty-three percent need help differentiating their programs from other MBA offerings.
  • Forty percent are focusing on improving students’ analytics and in-demand job skills.

If we combine our findings with other industry insights, we can review the current state of the MBA market, address specific challenges that schools face in differentiating their programs and developing their courses, and explore innovative solutions to those challenges.

The Current MBA Market

In recent years, MBA students have expressed a growing interest in online programs. According to data from AACSB, 47,353 students were enrolled in fully online programs during 2021–22. That figure, drawn from 288 schools participating in the association’s 2021–22 Business School Questionnaire, includes students in both full-time and part-time MBA programs.

One reason online programs are so appealing is that they allow students to complete coursework at their own pace. That was made clear in an AACSB Insights article that included a discussion of Tomorrow’s MBA, a report published by higher education consulting firm CarringtonCrisp and the European Foundation for Management Development. Of 1,129 prospective MBA students who were surveyed for the 2022 report, “73 percent indicated that rather than attending lectures and collaborating on virtual projects with other students at fixed times, they would prefer to study at their own pace.” This preference also is reflected in the increasing number of accelerated online programs offered in the market.

MBA programs have evolved to meet these needs because student satisfaction is paramount. The Wiley survey found that 73 percent of traditional MBA programs rely on student feedback to measure program success. Even more online programs—80 percent—use this data to determine success. (Enrollment/retention rates and job placement also factor in.)

Our survey found that prospective and current MBA students are most likely to lack skills in analysis, research, critical thinking, and writing.

Knowing this, programs are exploring MBA degrees with specializations. Among AACSB-member schools, specialized programs enjoyed a 19 percent enrollment increase in 2021, while standard MBA programs saw only a 13 percent rise. With the goal of better preparing students for a competitive job market, these specialized programs often build on critical skills already offered in traditional MBA options. To further assist students in securing employment, many schools also offer networking opportunities, career guidance, and prep courses.

While these changes are significant, there are still areas where schools can improve their MBA offerings. Our survey found that prospective and current MBA students are most likely to lack skills in analysis, research, critical thinking, and writing. To provide students with the necessary analytical and soft skills, programs should offer customizable, relevant, real-world materials and experiences. Nearly 60 percent of the deans, administrators, and chairs we surveyed would likely consider altering their MBA programs in the future to meet these needs.

How Programs Are Evolving

Student demands and marketplace trends are prompting business schools to make additional changes to their MBA programs. For instance, many schools have added or plan to add concentrations in cybersecurity, entrepreneurship, and management. They are also offering lower-cost programs, faster tracks to completing coursework, and more flexible schedules to accommodate learners who may take longer to finish their programs.

The 2022 Tomorrow’s MBA survey results suggest that all of these options are popular. For instance, 70 percent of respondents expressed interest in taking MBA course modules over the span of several years and in enrolling in “MBA programs that … provided low-cost learning opportunities for the next 10 years after they graduated.”

However, given the number of one-year and fast-track MBA programs currently available, offering such options is not enough to make a business school stand out from the competition. School leaders need to do more to truly differentiate their programs.

In the survey that Wiley conducted, 90 percent of respondents cited the following attributes as either important or very important for developing more competitive programs:

  1. Differentiating a program’s benefits and values from other programs.
  2. Connecting with companies to offer students real-world projects and experiences.
  3. Training students to have the soft skills (such as writing, critical thinking, public speaking, and teamwork) necessary for real-world employment.

As discussed in detail below, schools can differentiate their programs if they focus on real-world needs, offer courses in different formats, and concentrate on skills required by specific professions.

Focus on Real-World Needs

To make sure they are preparing students for the working world, schools should take three steps:

Renew their emphasis on in-demand skills. Data drives many strategic decisions in business today, which is why data analysis skills are crucial for MBA students. One school addressing this need is North Carolina State University in Raleigh, which offers a customizable, self-paced MBA program through its Poole College of Management. Courses include Data-Driven Managerial Decisions and Critical Thinking for Managers, as well as courses in data security and privacy, international finance, negotiation and conflict management, analytical supply chain management, and predictive analytics.

Optimize current offerings for effectiveness and efficiency. Wiley offers custom course mapping services that enable schools to identify areas where their current courses can be elevated with key supplemental certification courses. For example, soft skill accelerators help schools address important skills throughout the current curriculum. Schools also can add courses that include official Continuing Professional Education credits. When students earn these credits, they are able to demonstrate their aptitude and readiness for real-world careers and advancement.

Offer boot camps and required pre-MBA courses. Our survey revealed that MBA administrators consider such offerings the most effective way to address gaps in students’ skills and knowledge. When students participate in these activities at the beginning of an MBA program, they gain academic readiness, master important skills, and bolster their knowledge, leading them to maximize their learning potential. For instance, students in the Part-Time Accelerated MBA at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh must take a certain number of refresher courses to participate in the program.

Offer a Variety of Formats

When online degree programs first appeared, they were seen by many as lesser degrees when compared to traditional, in-person MBA programs. That view has changed drastically. Today, more than 70 percent of employers consider online business degrees to be as good as or better than those from traditional programs. This newfound respect gives students and institutions more flexibility to customize offerings.

Self-paced customizable modules enable students to build on the principles of their coursework while fitting into whichever program format makes sense for them.

Finding material that can be successfully used in online, in-person, and hybrid courses is one challenge decision-makers face when rethinking their MBA programs. Self-paced customizable modules enable students to build on the principles of their coursework while fitting into whichever program format makes sense for them. What’s more, customizable modules allow instructors to teach their current material without having to overhaul the curriculum.

Organize by Profession

MBA programs must provide relevant, flexible, updated material to meet the needs of today’s evolving job market, especially as more MBA students are interested in careers that take them around the globe. Ashland University, a private university in Ohio with just under 6,000 undergraduate and 955 graduate students, offers eight customizable MBA programs, including a one-year international MBA. Students can choose from several specializations and even customize their specializations within their programs, which allows them to prepare better for their chosen career paths.

Schools can provide students with even more customization options if they offer skill- and industry-specific badges and certificates that pair with other courses in the program. These certifications not only help to close knowledge gaps, but also add credible authority to the student’s MBA degree.

To make sure students put their new skills into practice, schools should provide MBA candidates with networking opportunities and career guidance. Carnegie Mellon does this through its Accelerate Leadership Center and the personalized executive leadership coaching it offers to students.

Solutions for Standing Out

Today’s MBA students want to enroll in flexible programs that accommodate their schedules, and they expect to realize a clear return on investment by acquiring highly marketable skills. To remain relevant and succeed in today’s market, business schools must meet these demands by differentiating their programs, allowing students to customize their degrees, and offering training in the most in-demand skills.

Schools will find it essential to align with a publisher who can meet the many and varied needs of their programs and their students. Wiley offers real-world, ready-to-use content and customization options, as well as certifications, customizable skills courses, and exclusive partnerships with globally recognized associations and organizations.

Wiley’s Skills and Program Accelerators, combined with custom curriculum mapping capabilities, help business schools build in-demand skills via easy-to-implement solutions. These solutions help schools set themselves apart by providing the resources today’s students want and need. Learn more and discover how Wiley can partner with you today.

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
Subscribe to LINK, AACSB's weekly newsletter!
AACSB LINK—Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge—is an email newsletter that brings members and subscribers the newest, most relevant information in global business education.
Sign up for AACSB's LINK email newsletter.
Our members and subscribers receive Leading Insights, News, and Knowledge in global business education.
Thank you for subscribing to AACSB LINK! We look forward to keeping you up to date on global business education.
Weekly, no spam ever, unsubscribe when you want.