ASU Recreates Its MBA to Serve an Ever-Changing Market

Transforming a full-time MBA program to be more relevant and responsive to the needs of the future.
ASU Recreates Its MBA to Serve an Ever-Changing Market

MBA students work with peers from other fields in ASU's Interdisciplinary Applied Learning Labs. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)


THREE YEARS AGO, the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe unveiled its redesigned full-time MBA and shared the news that a gift from a donor had enabled the school to offer full scholarships to all students accepted to the program. Since then, the Carey School’s Forward Focus MBA has attracted students with more diverse backgrounds and expertise from a wider range of fields, and it has produced 300 new graduates.

“We feel like the concrete is never dry on our programs,” says the school’s dean, Amy Hillman. “We constantly look at our curriculum and the value it offers students and employers. The only way our degrees stay relevant is if we keep them relevant.” How can today’s business schools transform their full-time MBAs to keep them competitive in a crowded market? For ASU, says Hillman, it has come down to four factors:

Staying in step with changing student expectations. Students were “a huge factor” in the redesign of the full-time MBA, says Hillman. “We asked, ‘How are students progressing in their careers two, five, and ten years after graduation? How can we help them get the offers they want right away and help them keep pace as their careers advance? And how have student expectations of MBA programs changed?’”

As one result of this exploration, the school plans to use the bulk of a US$25 million investment from the W.P. Carey Foundation to strengthen its career services offerings. Today’s students, says Hillman, want to know that their business schools are committed to helping them progress in both their short-term and long-term professional goals.

Creating customized learning experiences. The curriculum of the Forward Focus MBA integrates a high degree of flexibility, explains Hillman. All students pursue one of seven industry-specific concentrations: business analytics, consulting, entrepreneurship, finance, information management, marketing, or supply chain management. In addition, students can pursue one of six specializations, which include global business economics, healthcare management, sports business, the sustainable enterprise, high tech, and services. With this approach, students can target specific career paths within larger fields of interest. Plus, ambitious students can earn a second concurrent degree in one of six areas, including law, legal studies, medicine, architecture, innovation management, and finance. Students must declare one concentration, but they can combine the elements of the program into more than 20 different experiences.

“If you want to be a data-focused marketing leader, you can earn a marketing concentration with our master of business analytics. Then you can take it another layer deeper and add a specialization in services,” says Hillman.

Building an adaptable curriculum. The school has added classes and options that have future adaptation built into their delivery. These include courses in data analytics, as well as an extracurricular mentoring and coaching program that teams students with executives.

Perhaps most reflective of the Forward Focus philosophy, says Hillman, is the school’s new Interdisciplinary Applied Learning Labs. This course pairs MBA students with students from other master’s programs at ASU—from engineering to architecture—to work with businesses on actual problems. Students learn to coordinate their efforts across interdisciplinary teams, meet deadlines, and target client demands.

In one project, says Hillman, an interdisciplinary team of MBAs is helping the city of Tempe achieve a carbon-neutral footprint by 2025. “Those are serious stakes!” says Hillman. However, this project would not have happened, “if we hadn’t taken this fresh look at our curriculum.”

Cultivating connections with business. The school wants its redesigned MBA curriculum to create greater interaction among students, businesses, and ASU alumni. One element supporting that goal is the Executive Connections program, which has grown from 20 in-residence senior executive mentors at its launch to 60 today. Each full-time MBA student is paired with an executive who has experience in that student’s discipline. Through this program, each student makes a personal connection with someone who has seen how business in a specific industry has changed and what’s required to stay relevant for decades.

In the end, to design future-focused MBA programs, business schools must remain in step with the needs of students and businesses alike. The recruiters and corporations whose feedback informed ASU’s new approach to the MBA made their needs clear, says Hillman. “They want us to prepare students to be better leaders and communicators, and develop their empathy and introspection and decision making,” she says. “It’s on us to better prepare students for ambiguity and change.”