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Prime time for graduates

Business schools adapt to changing demands of students and employers

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Ryan Briggs doesn’t fit the typical Generation Y demographic. While many of his contemporaries struggle to find full-time, well-paying jobs, the fourth-year student at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce has a berth in mergers and acquisitions at a New York investment bank waiting for him upon graduation.

“It’s great in New York,” says Briggs, who already has done an internship in the Big Apple. “I see tons of people from U.Va. there.”

No doubt that’s true. McIntire reports that 86 percent of its undergraduate class of 2012 and 93 percent of its 2011 master’s program graduates had found employment. Virginia’s other business schools boast similarly rosy prospects for their graduates. Dean Richard Sorensen of Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business says that a recent job fair at his institution attracted 158 major companies and that “three to five job offers are not unusual” for his graduates, while Dean Mirta Martin of the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business at Virginia State University says that her traditionally black college “is having tremendous success in placing students in business jobs.”

Yet, despite that success, students aren’t flocking to business schools. Nationally, at institutions accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), undergraduate enrollment actually has fallen a bit during the past five years while master of business administration (MBA) enrollment has risen just slightly. The situation at the commonwealth’s business schools generally duplicates that national picture, although the business school deans at U.Va, George Mason University, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University and William & Mary all report stable or slowly growing enrollments. Overall the number of business school undergraduates in Virginia at AACSB-accredited schools dipped from 22,545 in 2007-08 to 20,837 in 2011-12, and MBA enrollment during the same time span posted only a modest increase, from 3,487 to 3,830.

Despite this seeming disconnect between supply and demand, the commonwealth’s business schools are bullish about their futures and are evolving their curricula to meet the changing demands of students and employers.

Flexibility and acceleration

Many of today’s graduate business students are people in their 30s who seek to fit school around work rather than pursue a master’s degree as a full-time venture.

For instance, McIntire’s master’s degree in management of information technology program is billed as having an “executive format” that allows working professionals to stay on the job while completing their degree. It recently logged its largest enrollment ever, Dean Carl Zeithaml says. The average age of enrollees is about 33.

U.Va.’s Darden Graduate School of Business also offers an executive MBA program, which features online study augmented by once-a-month Thursday through Saturday classes on campus.

At George Mason School of Management, enrollment in the full-time MBA program is be flat, but Dean Jorge Haddock says his institution is expanding evening course offerings at its Arlington campus in response to their popularity with part-time students.  Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business also is experiencing heavy demand from working professionals at its Northern Virginia campus in Falls Church, and at William & Mary, Dean Lawrence B. Pulley says evening classes at the Mason School of Business are full.

All of Virginia’s business schools are expanding their “e-learning” opportunities, in large part to offer more flexibility to working students. Several offer online certificate programs, but so far, only a few, such as Liberty University, offer exclusively e-learning degrees. 

Many full-time graduate students want to finish their studies faster these days, and Virginia business schools are trying to accommodate them, too.

At McIntire, Zeithaml says accelerated programs include an intense, 40-credit yearlong master’s in commerce aimed at nonbusiness majors and a one-year program that lets accounting students earn a master’s degree and fulfill the credit-hour requirements to sit for the CPA exam.

At GMU, adding time to each semester allows students to abbreviate the time it takes to finish an MBA, while Pulley says William & Mary’s “Flex MBA” allows students to set their own pace toward a degree, whether fast or slow.

Specialization and generalization

Employers are looking for hires who not only have specific areas of expertise but who possess intangible assets, such as leadership ability and problem-solving skills.

To meet the first demand, in-state schools are augmenting traditional courses in marketing, management, information technology and accounting with concentrations in IT, health technology, business analytics, project management and cyber security.

International business has become a particularly popular study area, and commonwealth campuses are becoming truly multicultural as students flow in both directions across borders. At VCU, Dean Ed Grier says that graduate business students can earn a dual degree from his school and Christ University in Bangalore, India. McIntire also partners with an institution in India, and a large draw for its one-year master of commerce degree is the month that students spend overseas learning about business models in other countries. VSU’s Martin says more of her undergraduates are opting to both study abroad and minor in international business. 

The University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business is particularly known for its international emphasis. About half of its undergraduates typically spend a semester abroad, while at any given time, the school hosts about 100 exchange students. Thomas J. Cosse, associate dean for international programs, notes that the business school offers double diploma programs in conjunction with the Rouen Business School in France and the management school of Deusto University in San Sebastian, Spain.

Undergraduates also can opt for cross-school majors within the University of Richmond, such as Chinese-International Business or Italian-International Business. The Robins School also requires all of its MBA candidates to work abroad with an overseas business as part of its international residency course.

Entrepreneurship is another up-and-coming specialty. Its appeal to the independently minded Generation Y was evidenced recently by the number of entries in VCU’s first-ever business plan competition.  Grier says that the goal was to field 25 teams, but 41 teams entered.

The Business Technology Center (BTC), which advises startup firms, gives Pamplin’s MBA students real-world, paid experience with entrepreneurship by hiring them to work on projects. “They learn what it takes to get a venture off the ground,” says BTC Director Dick Daugherty.  At the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation, business students team with arts and engineering majors to develop technology-based innovations.

Such interdisciplinary interaction and hands-on experience fall under the umbrella of the “softer” or more generalized skills that employers now expect from new employees.  “CEOs want students who can go across the spectrum, who have more broadness and polish,” Grier says, and students at Virginia’s business schools say that the commonwealth’s business schools are providing just that.

“VCU prepared me in the most comprehensive way possible,” says Jennifer Johnson, whose 2011 bachelor’s in business included a specialty in entrepreneurship and small business management. “I honed a lot of skill sets. I learned to be savvy, to present well, to research and write.” After completing two well-paid internships that further broadened her skills, Johnson went to work for Franklin Street, a health-care marketing firm in Midlothian.

Briggs also lauds the preparation that he received at McIntire. “I acquired the full gamut of skills to be successful, including people skills,” And he is confident those skills will serve him well, not only in the big city but on the world stage. “Down the line, I want to work for a business with a global scope,” he says.

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