Rebuilding an MBA Program from the Ground Up

By inviting industry to help overhaul and deliver its struggling MBA, the University of Houston–Downtown grew its program from smallest to largest in the Houston market—in just three years.
Rebuilding an MBA Program from the Ground Up

JUST ONE YEAR AFTER the 2012 launch of our two-year part-time MBA, it was clear the program was in trouble. The 34-hour fixed-cohort program at the College of Business at the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD) in Texas had enrolled only about 20 students in each of three semesters, and the fact that only seven people attended our spring information sessions suggested that our program intake for the fall 2013 semester would likely drop to 15 students. That meant our program was destined to be ranked as the smallest of 13 MBA programs in the region by the Houston Business Journal—for the second consecutive year.

Why was the program struggling? At least part of the problem could be attributed to the perception of the institution. For most of its 40-year history, UHD had been the open-enrollment arm of the four-campus University of Houston system, and many potential graduate students did not view an open-enrollment admissions philosophy favorably. Even though the UHD College of Business had set standards for enrollment in 2010, this fact was not widely known outside the university.

Another possible constraint was that UHD had only limited relationships with local industry. In part, this was due to a lack of resources. The university provided career services support to students, in the form of résumé development and interviewing practice. But there were few career development activities such as internships to help students obtain permanent placement or help the school develop close relationships with local and regional employers. As a result, most of the leading regional employers simply did not consider our graduates for job positions.

We faced two other challenges. While the College of Business ultimately would achieve its maintenance of accreditation in 2014, our faculty were working nearly at full capacity. The additional course coverage required by the new MBA program was stressing the college’s ability to meet AACSB faculty sufficiency standards. On top of that, UHD’s state funding was likely to be even lower in 2019 than in 2014. With our ability to raise undergraduate tuition and fees constrained by strict limits, any additional revenue would have to come from our MBA program.

All of these factors called into question the fundamental viability of our business model—in essence, the platform was on fire. We would have to radically change the business model for the College of Business and find ways to supercharge a program that, so far, had been inconsequential in the market.

INDUSTRY-FOCUSED REVAMP

Because of the sense of urgency, we knew we had to make big changes that would attract the attention of both potential students and regional employers. So in 2013, with the university’s support, the College of Business took the following steps to increase enrollment in its MBA program:

We identified our target demographic. From our analysis, we discovered that the market for our MBA would consist of working professionals in the first, second, or third levels of management.

We engaged with industry. In the summer of 2013, we visited executives from 35 of the largest companies in the Houston region to discuss our new curriculum and invite their participation.

We changed program format. Based on our survey of previous and current MBA students, as well as an analysis of MBA programs at peer institutions, we decided that a fixed-cohort program was not right for our market. Instead, we replaced it with a core/concentration model. We selected five initial concentrations: finance, human resource management, investment management, supply chain management, and leadership. Each of the executives we had met during our corporate visits committed their help in designing our concentration courses.

We scheduled curriculum development meetings for each concentration. Held in fall 2013 and early spring 2014, each of these five meetings was attended by 15 high-level executives from the disciplines under development and facilitated by an industry professional we had chosen ahead of time. We invited faculty who taught in the area under discussion to attend the meetings, but only as observers.

All of these meetings lasted about three and a half hours and followed the same format. First, the facilitator led the executives in 90 minutes of brainstorming; we wrote down elements the executives thought each concentration should include on extra-large sticky notes and stuck those notes to the wall. In all, each group identified 65 to 70 concepts. Next, the executives categorized those concepts into themes, or “buckets,” with each group independently identifying five to six buckets per concentration. Finally, they gave each bucket a name—which eventually would become the course title—and identified learning goals for each new course.

We launched our Corporate Fellows program. As we developed our concentrations, we decided that each course should incorporate a team-teaching format. Each teaching team would include two members. The first would be a faculty member who would act as the professor of record for each course, digitizing all lecture material and breaking it down into small “chunks” of content available to students online. The second would be a seasoned professional, called a Corporate Fellow, who would be charged with helping students understand the practical application of the material and providing students with immediate takeaways each week. While Corporate Fellows acted as instructors, they did not have the same responsibilities as adjunct faculty.

Our corporate guests were astonished to see that we would teach precisely the same courses they had initially suggested.

To find these professionals, we reached out to faculty, alumni, industry groups, and friends of the college. Many executives were excited to participate because they wanted to work with students. In 2014–2015, we started with 34 fellows. We initially had expected to need only 22 fellows, because we had planned to offer just one section for each of our 22 new concentration courses. But because of high demand for each concentration, we added a second section for each course. We paid each fellow US$3,000 for each section they co-taught, with some teaching more than one section.

FACULTY ON BOARD

As we changed the program’s direction, we knew we would be asking a lot from our faculty. And without faculty approval, any new strategy would be dead in the water. So, as soon as our concentration development meetings were over, we immediately brought faculty into the process.

First, the professors who had attended the brainstorming sessions conducted a debriefing, where they reviewed the executives’ sticky notes, course names, and learning objectives. Next, they assigned faculty members to develop content for each course. Our faculty then accelerated the process, developing our new courses and receiving the university’s approval by mid-spring 2014, in the academic equivalent of “light speed.” That meant we could start promoting the program to potential students for the fall.

Once the concentrations were approved, we scheduled follow-up meetings with all the executives who had worked on the redesign. At these meetings, faculty presented the details of the concentration courses they had developed. Most of our corporate guests were astonished to see that we would teach precisely the same courses they had initially suggested. Our faculty said that many of the executives used the same word to describe our approach to redesigning our program: “refreshing.”

DIFFERENTIATION THROUGH ASSESSMENT

Through this entire process, we knew that we had to demonstrate to industry that UHD graduates would add real value to employers. To accomplish this, we had to make another critical ask of faculty: to establish a robust course assessment program.

As faculty designed course content, they worked with assessment and assurance-of-learning staff to incorporate two to four assessment measures per learning goal in each course; each measure was tied to one of the learning goals identified by executives. By aligning our assessment with those industry-driven learning goals, we could proclaim to employers, “Here are metrics to show that UHD graduates know what you want them to know.”

We knew that making a clear correlation between our assessment goals and the skills that employers sought in new hires would provide significant competitive advantage for UHD graduates. In essence, we wanted employers to view hiring our graduates as a great business decision.

COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

We put a great deal of time and effort into developing our concentrations, but as of spring 2014 we had invested very little financially. That was about to change. As we approached the fall 2014 recruiting season, we increased our promotional budget by 200 percent, with the university and the College of Business each responsible for half. The next step was deciding what we wanted to promote—what differentiated our program from others in the market?

Since most competing MBA programs claimed corporate involvement in their curricula, industry’s contribution to our program’s development was not a differentiating factor. However, we believed that five features of our MBA gave us competitive advantage in our target market:

  • First, we had decided to offer our five concentrations as free-standing graduate certificate programs, each with the same admission requirements as the MBA. That structure allowed students to pursue graduate certificates in areas of interest and gain skills to help them add immediate value to their employers.
  • Second, if students in our graduate certificate programs decided to continue on to the full MBA program, we would waive the GMAT requirement if they had earned B’s or above. This option, known as “Soft Start,” was particularly attractive to working professionals.
  • Third, in a feature maintained from the initial program, the courses followed an eight-week, hybrid format, also attractive to working professionals.
  • Fourth, the cost of our program was comparatively affordable, ranging from US$21,000 to $23,000 in total tuition and fees.
  • Finally, we heavily promoted our Corporate Fellows’ participation in the program, which we believe helped boost our fall 2014 enrollment numbers. In that first semester, our faculty and Corporate Fellows did a wonderful job team-teaching and sparking discussion in their classes. Some teaching teams even incorporated a planned disagreement into their discussion period to see how students reacted—for instance, after the academic introduced a theoretical concept, the practitioner could interject to note “that’s not how it works in the real world.” The two then could hold a live debate in front of the class, before turning the discussion over to the students. Our faculty and fellows have found this approach to be incredibly satisfying from a teaching and learning perspective.

Our students enjoyed the corporate driven, problem-solution approach in our concentration classrooms so much that we were met with an unexpected problem. When it was time for our instructional teams to dismiss their classes, held from 7:00 to 9:45 in the evening, students often were not ready to leave. They wanted to continue the discussion, even as security came at 10:00 to try to close the building. Ultimately, we had to move the building closing back to 10:30 to give the students adequate time to finish their discussions. What a nice problem to have!

These differentiating factors helped us obtain almost immediate positive reactions to our new concentration-based MBA. In summer 2014, we asked all students who had completed graduate certificate programs to provide a comprehensive evaluation of their experiences. Across all certificate options, we achieved an “overall satisfaction” rate of 4.07 on a 5-point scale. The average response to the question “Would you recommend the program?” received a mean score of 4.08. With these results, we expected that word-of-mouth referrals could drive higher enrollments for the fall.

In fact, response turned out to be far greater than our most ambitious estimates—our enrollment shot up from a total enrollment of 49 students in fall 2012 to a total of 381 students in fall 2014. That semester, the UHD MBA program moved from being the region’s 13th largest program, as ranked by the Houston Business Journal, to fourth.

GAINING MOMENTUM

As we prepared for the fall 2015 recruiting season, we strengthened the MBA program even further, by increasing the number of concentration/graduate certificate options to include accounting, business development/sales management, and international business. We went through the same process to develop these concentrations as we did with our original five. At the same time, we constructed a separate College Graduate Office suite and increased the number of MBA classrooms from three to eight.

Then, because of unexpectedly high enrollments in 2014–2015, we made several strategic new hires, with the support of funds from a new supplemental fee that we introduced in fall 2014 (see “How We Funded Success”). We added MBA advisors to aid our students throughout their programs, and we hired several
customer service coordinators, who contacted potential students by phone at three points in the MBA
admission process: indication of initial interest, application submission, and application completion. With
the help of these coordinators, who responded to potential students within one day of receiving any message or application information, more than 80 percent of applicants ultimately enrolled in our program.
We opened a new career services office for the College of Business just over two years ago. We’ve recently added three new full-time staff, one of whom is dedicated exclusively to helping our graduate students. We’ll continue adding career services staff as demand dictates.

We’ve also hired 12 new full-time faculty members, most of whom were college-funded. In the past, we had primarily hired faculty who were willing to take lower salaries in order to live and work in Houston. Now, however, we offered higher salaries so that we could make discipline-specific hires to catch up to our growth and bring the college back into AACSB compliance. However, because we were offering higher salaries, across almost all disciplines, we introduced both salary compression and salary inversion—which, as expected, created some conflict with existing faculty. To ease that conflict, we have found ways to provide additional compensation to faculty for activities such as developing courses, assuming course overloads, taking on extra students, and teaching introductory courses.

Finally, in 2015 we increased our number of Corporate Fellows to 50. Many of these executives came from larger companies throughout the region with which the college did not have previous relationships. Ultimately, several Corporate Fellows introduced MBA faculty to others in their organizations, bringing us closer to industry than ever before. Today, our Corporate Fellows are beginning to provide their faculty teaching partners with data from their companies, which could lead to joint publications. We now have hired someone full-time to coordinate our Corporate Fellows and introduce new practitioners to the program.

In addition to adding new staff, we also increased our promotional expenditures, this time by 80 percent.
We attended area trade shows and emphasized the “buzz” that was building in the corporate market regarding the UHD MBA program. We also have contracted with the higher education consulting firm Eduvantis to revamp our website and improve our digital marketing activity.
In 2016, for the first time, we planned a spring start for the four concentrations that had consistently garnered the greatest interest: finance, human resource management, leadership, and supply chain management. We expected 120 students to enroll in our spring courses, but ultimately, more than 200 students joined the program, bringing our total certified enrollment to 914. As we look ahead, we believe that we will see a total enrollment of at least 1,200 students in 2016–2017, which we expect will be the ceiling for us in terms of our present capacity.

TIME TO THRIVE

After three short years, we have accomplished a complete turnaround for the UHD MBA program. We went
from a total enrollment of 49 MBA students in fall 2012 to 765 incoming students in fall 2015. We went from being the smallest MBA program in the region to being the largest in the Houston Business Journal’s December 2015 ranking. This growth occurred at a time when the overall MBA market in Houston had declined by about 5 percent.
It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, the College of Business had no sustainable business model, and it was going to be difficult for us to maintain AACSB accreditation in 2018-2019. Today, we face a much different picture. Our college has a financial freedom that it has never before enjoyed, and we have generated excitement about our MBA program in the corporate community.

Our faculty have an added spring in their step, now that they have designed courses that match industry needs and they have embraced team teaching with the Corporate Fellows. Most important, our college continues to develop a compelling story that fits nicely around AACSB accreditation’s three pillars of impact, innovation, and engagement.

For the UHD College of Business, the future is bright.