Published on 2017/02/01
The EvoLLLution | Creating Space in the MBA Market by Opening Access to Part-Time Learners
The part-time MBA marketplace is a challenging one, with numerous players, competitors both inside and outside the direct market and declining demand. Leaders need to focus on innovating and improving their flexibility and curriculum to stay in the game.

The MBA marketplace in the United States is fiercely competitive. There are numerous competitors offering their own spin on the credential, and many more offering alternatives. What’s more, the credentials themselves have come under the same scrutiny as other postsecondary offerings in recent years. All this amounts to creating a challenging environment for business schools to operate in, but as with many problems, creativity provides a solution. In this interview, Gonzalo Freixes shares some insights on UCLA’s Fully Employed MBA, a part-time MBA program, that mirrors the experience of a full-time offering while providing part-time students the flexibility necessary to allow access.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant differences between a traditional MBA and the Fully Employed MBA you offer at UCLA?

Gonzalo Freixes (GF): The most obvious difference between traditional MBA programs and the FEMBA is that people generally continue to work while pursuing their MBA part time.

If somebody comes into a full-time, traditional MBA program with five years of work experience, they graduate with five years of experience and a MBA. With a part time MBA, they’ll graduate with eight years of work experience and an MBA because some continue to work and develop their professional skills while earning their MBA. Obviously, the flexibility of the schedule and the fact that it takes a little longer is a significant difference because in the end they get the same MBA.

Evo: Why was it important to develop a unique MBA for fully employed individuals?

GF: It was important to develop an alternative to the traditional, full-time MBA program because of the needs of the marketplace and the needs of working professionals. At its core, not everyone can afford to take two years off from work. Other people may already have a lot of financial commitments; they might have a family, a home and all that good stuff. As such, the only way some people can get their MBA is to enroll part time.

While historically there have been Executive MBAs for more seasoned, experienced professionals, there was really nothing in the space for somebody who earned their bachelor’s degree less than ten years ago and wanted to earn an MBA but not quit their job to do so. The part time MBA at UCLA and at other institutions emerged from this need for someone who didn’t need an Executive MBA but did need an MBA while continuing to work.

Evo: Strictly from a revenue perspective, how valuable is the FEMBA to the Anderson School?

GF: We rely on several of our programs to generate fees to pay for all our programs. UCLA Anderson went financially self-sufficient approximately three years ago from the University of California system. All our programs are financially independent and so the revenue from our part time executive MBA’s and our masters’ programs, as well as the full time MBA, all help to pay for the faculty, the programs and the scholarships offered by the Anderson School. We also have fellowships and scholarships for some of our part-time MBA students, which is paid for in part by these revenues.

Evo: Thinking about the different expectations of traditional-age students and fully employed professionals, how do the responsibilities of administrators change when dealing with adult students?

GF: It’s important to note that full-time MBA students typically have several years of experience before they enroll in their MBA. We rarely see a 23-year-old, fresh out of their undergraduate degree, starting with any of our programs.

Nevertheless, the needs of working professionals are a little bit different from those of full-time MBA students. Full-time students might be looking to change careers entirely and will spend a lot of their time while they’re getting their MBA trying to get placed in new or different careers or a higher level in their existing career.

On the other hand, we’ve found that our fully employed and part-time MBA students often fall into three categories. About 1/3 of the class are comes in as “enhancers” who need to get the MBA so they can continue to rise up the ladder in their company or their industry. They want to stay where they are and just use the MBA to become a more senior leader in the organization. Another third of our students come in as “switchers”—they are more like a full-time MBA student. These are folks that want to switch careers entirely. Finally, the last third are what we call “explorers” who are open to either moving up the ladder in their existing industry or organization or switching.

When it comes to the management of these programs, we have to provide career counselling and coaching to these different audiences whereas the full-time programs more traditionally will offer more help with placing these individuals with firms and companies that will come and traditionally recruit on campus. The next group is our part-time MBA students, our FEMBAs, and they can participate in our campus recruiting with the full-time students for these traditional jobs in consulting, high banking, technology management, etc, and many of them do. Roughly that third will oftentimes participate to some degree in that process but then we also have to have seasoned executive coaches which we do in a career center for our own fully employed MBA students that can help provide coaching and be executive guidance to those that want enhance or get promotions. Many of our students actually get the promotion during the program, not after the program.

Evo: How does their level of expectation of service for the institution differ from the expectations of full-time traditional students?

GF: Because these students are working and because many of them have different schedules, job responsibilities, family commitments and other demands on their time, one of their expectations is scheduling flexibility. If you’re not working and enrolled full time, you can go to classes anytime.

In the FEMBA program, we have three different scheduling options for our students. First, they can come every Saturday for a full day of classes. That way, students who are in San Diego or the Bay Area who want to come to school at UCLA but they can’t come during the week can come down on the weekend. Second, we have a traditional weeknight MBA section where they come on Tuesday and Thursday nights for classes. We also offer a FEMBA-Flex model, which is hybrid. It’s 50 percent online and the students only come to the school every three weeks for classes on Saturday and Sunday. This creates access for students who come to UCLA from Washington D.C., Houston, New York , the Carolinas, Vancouver and Mexico City—those who aren’t in our region—to get their MBA, because they don’t have to come on a weekly basis to campus. So, as a starting point, flexibility of schedule is really important when it comes to meeting these students’ expectations.

Setting that aside, these students want access to the same kinds of curriculum, networking activities, student clubs and career services that full-time students get. We do provide a similar experience in the sense that in our part-time students are cohorted like they would be in a full-time program. They come in together and they do all of their core classes with the same students, just like the full-time program design. The difference is that these cohorts are smaller. We also offer the capacity for our part-time students to choose from a suite of electives like the full-time students do, so that they can specialize in an area that interests them.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the unique aspects of designing an MBA program specifically for working adults?

GF: The main challenges in recent years has been that, for a variety of reasons, the population of applicants to part-time programs have gone down significantly—more than 50 percent over the last nine years. This comes from a combination of the recession, employers not helping fund education as much as they used to, and people exploring other options like one-year specialized master’s degrees.

In order to provide an appealing education to part-time students that keeps them coming, despite the fact that there are fewer of them applying across the industry, we have to innovate and offer these kinds of flexible programs. We have a couple of immersion-type programs, for example, where students do one week of electives in another country to get a foreign study experience without having to take too much time off of work. This market is challenging and part-time programs need to continue to recognize the needs of this population to make sure we’re providing them with what they need in terms of flexibility, scheduling and curriculum.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • While most MBA students have work experience, those enrolled full time are typically switching careers while those enrolled part-time fall into three categories—enhancers, switchers and explorers—and have different goals and aspirations.
  • When a school operates on a self-funded model, there’s more pressure to drive revenue but that revenue can then be used to offer scholarships and services that may otherwise have not been possible.
  • Competition, economic conditions and declining employer support are affecting demand for part-time MBA programs, pushing business school leaders to innovate and improve flexibility.
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