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MBA Programs Evolve to Meet Student Needs

B-schools are focusing on entrepreneurship and experiential learning to give graduates an edge.

Changes to MBA curricula are intended to help students compete in the job market.

Changes to MBA curricula are intended to help students compete in the job market.


After working for five years in California as a musical supervisor for film trailers, Nick Martin decided to tap into his analytical side at Texas Christian University's Neeley School of Business.

As part of his business school studies, he works as a digital marketing and advertising intern for a medical technology company, where he is being recruited for a position after he graduates. With his background, getting hired there was a long shot, he says. But his employers were impressed by how well he managed a market opportunity analysis students did for the company.

Administrators at Neeley and elsewhere are scrambling to find new ways to sharpen graduates' edge in a leaner, meaner business world. In some cases, change has been sweeping.

[Learn more about the job market for MBAs.]

The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School rolled out a whole new plan last fall that allows students greater leeway to customize their studies within six "pathways," including Managing the Global Enterprise and Understanding and Serving Customers.

Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management will infuse its entire curriculum with four themes that cut across the traditional disciplines like accounting and marketing: innovation and entrepreneurship; private enterprise/public policy interface; markets and customers; and "architectures of collaboration."

Most institutions, like Neeley, are working within their existing curricula to allow students opportunities to specialize earlier, expanding offerings on entrepreneurship and innovation, and integrating experiential learning as well as more (and more sophisticated) ways to get a global perspective.

[See photos of the Best Business Schools.]

Schools are responding to new pressures to compete among themselves, too. Applications were down at nearly two thirds of the country's full-time MBA programs last year, according to a study last fall by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

"The increasingly competitive nature of the MBA landscape mandates that you are always on the leading edge," says Stacey Whitecotton, associate dean for MBA programs at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business.

The new curriculum at W.P. Carey, which debuted last fall, still relies on core courses such as accounting, finance, and marketing as a foundation. But it now integrates more electives into the third and fourth quarters, so students can go after greater depth in their chosen areas before showing up for a summer internship

Courses in entrepreneurship are becoming de rigueur in the elective mix. Entrepreneurship and innovation were wish list items that Raj Echambadi heard again and again when he polled employers and alumni of the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, where he is a professor of business administration and academic director of executive programs.

As a result, UIUC introduced several core courses last fall that are being integrated as well into the full-time MBA program, including entrepreneurship and corporate renewal, in which teams develop business plans for new ventures and compete for university seed grants, and strategic innovation management, where students analyze innovation success stories across industries and countries.

Student Scott Rylko, a vice president of a foodservice equipment and supplies manufacturer, says the most valuable takeaway so far has been instruction on the importance of "disruptive innovation" in setting a course for businesses, as digital photography and online periodicals have done for publishing, for example.

"Instead of waiting for someone else to disrupt your business through technology," he says, the goal is to figure out how to disrupt yourself.

[Get tips on funding your MBA.]

Full-time candidates traditionally haven't had the advantage of immediately applying what they learn in the classroom. That's changing rapidly as programs build in experiential learning.

Each year, students at University of Iowa's Henry B. Tippie College of Business form teams from across business specialties to consult for companies in different industries. Students have helped Goodwill of the Heartland move into the baked goods business, for instance, and worked with Stihl to analyze a lithium ion versus a gas engine for its power tools.