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Business Schools Recruit Poets, Philosophers, and Scientists

Schools afford students with liberal arts backgrounds new opportunities to hone their business acumen.

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It took only one year for Ron Johnson to leap from a management position at a SuperTarget store to a role at athletic apparel maker Under Armour where he helps develop shoes worn on court by N.B.A. luminaries like Orlando's Gilbert Arenas and up-and-coming stars like Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings. Johnson says he owes his dramatic ascent to the M.A. in Management program offered by Wake Forest University. "My main goal at that point was 'I just want to get out of retail,'" he says. "[Now], regardless [of] whether or not I get in at 6 [a.m.] and leave at 9:30 [p.m.], I get to talk about basketball and basketball sneakers all day, and I owe Wake Forest for that." 

Johnson graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 2008 with a degree in economics and psychology that he parlayed into a job at Target. But after nearly a year there, he caught wind of the 10-month program at Wake Forest, which is intended for students with a year or less of post-graduate professional experience and who hail from liberal arts—or nonbusiness—academic backgrounds. 

Johnson, who once hawked athletic shoes in high school, received a partial scholarship, and enrolled in 2009. Via the school's Career Management Center, an office that works with every student until he or she finds a job, Johnson was able to connect with with Eric Wiseman, CEO of apparel giant VF Corporation. After a meeting, Wiseman offered to mention Johnson's name to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. "By the time this man walked down the hallway [after the meeting] I had my résumé in his Blackberry," says Johnson, who is now associate product line manager for basketball footwear at Under Armour.

[See 10 business schools that lead to jobs.] 

Wake's program, founded three years ago, is one of several graduate programs that have recently started targeting students without business experience. Prominent business schools that offer similar degrees include those at Duke University, the University of Virginia, and the University of Florida, which created the first such program in 2000. Steve Reinemund, dean of business at Wake Forest, claims the M.A. program gives students an avenue to sharpen broad skills—­like communication and critical thinking­—they developed as undergraduates, which they may not know how to implement in the professional setting without specific training in areas like teamwork, marketing, or accounting. "[Our students] come in, they have lots of energy, a broad background, and some drive, but really have no clue about business or how to apply it," he says. 

Among the class that graduated from Wake Forest's program in 2010, 90 percent of the students found jobs within six months according to a school spokesperson. There are 96 students in the class set to graduate this summer, who were drawn from a pool of roughly 600 applicants. Though only about 15 percent of students are accepted, the academic admission standards are less rigorous than traditional business programs at Wake Forest and comparable schools: The median undergraduate GPA of the class of 2011 is 3.1, the median GRE score is 1150, and the median GMAT is 590. (M.B.A. students at Wake have an average GMAT score of 653, for instance.) About half of students are female—atypical among business programs—and more than half are underrepresented minorities. "We really look at the whole person," Reinemund says. 

Annual tuitions at these programs are roughly on par with those of a traditional M.B.A., though most of the management M.A. programs last one year instead of the typical two spent earning an M.B.A. At Florida's Hough Graduate School of Business, the one-year M.S. in Management program costs $14,500 for in-state students and $37,500 for out-of-state students, says Ana Portocarrero, director of the program. By comparison, tuition for M.B.A. students at Florida is $10,915 and $28,309 per year for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively. 

Unlike at Wake Forest or Duke, where 70 percent of students have six months or less of work experience, Florida's program is available to older students who have worked for several years in another field. And students from other graduate programs at the university can dual enroll, coupling their area of expertise—engineering, for instance—with business training.