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.”