The MBA is Not Dead

Demand has ebbed and flowed but remains on high tide

Back Article Aug 1, 2012 By Sigrid Bathen

When Laurie Grimsman graduated in June from the Graduate School of Management at UC Davis, she was 51 and a self-proclaimed “age outlier.”

“It took me a while to get my bachelor’s degree (in accounting from Brigham Young University in 1988) because I got married and had three children,” she says. “I definitely have some gaps in my résumé.” She worked for five years as an accountant with several area firms and 10 years with Sutter Health, but had been out of the workforce for seven years when she sought her master’s degree in business administration.

“When my last child left, I knew I wanted to go back to work,” she says. “But I wanted to get my skills back up to speed — and build my confidence.”

Echoing the views of other Capital Region MBA grads, she says the business administration program did all that and more. “It gave me a much more global perspective,” she says. “I got multiple (job) offers, and I don’t think my age mattered at all.” She now works at Intel.

Her story highlights the diverse career and life stories of MBA grads — as well as the enduring value of a graduate degree periodically lampooned in national news media as duplicative or even obsolete. But local MBA students, business school administrators, professional groups and employers, and a growing volume of recent news accounts in major media such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, paint a much more nuanced and somewhat rosier picture.

“When the economy tanked in 2008, we initially saw a 50 percent jump in applications,” says Dr. Sanjay Varshney, dean of Sacramento State’s College of Business Administration. The curriculum there includes a 15-month, “self-supported” executive MBA costing about $36,300, not including books, fees or room and board. Annual tuition for the standard, state-supported MBA is $10,000 and generally takes two and a half years to complete.

“As the economy became more protracted, we saw a 50 percent decline (in applications),” he says. “Slowly, we have seen the applications coming back to normal levels.”

Varshney describes the analytical skills developed in MBA programs as “very marketable and recession-resistant.” At the same time, graduate business programs and employers are increasingly selective, with stiffer admission requirements and tougher competition for jobs. As a four-year degree becomes a “threshold” requirement for many positions, he says, “The MBA program is becoming more critical, and the need for getting an MBA is getting even higher.”

Many MBA candidates are working adults who plan to stay with their current employers, and some employers will help foot the bill, although others have been forced to scale back on tuition reimbursement programs in the economic downturn.

At the University of the Pacific Eberhardt School of Business in Stockton, where tuition for the 16-month MBA program costs nearly $60,000, Dean Lewis Gale says enrollment was sharply affected when financially strapped businesses “began to pull back on reimbursement for younger employees” to attend graduate school. “But we’re starting to see much better data on the horizon,” he says with more than 200 applications for fall 2012, a huge jump from 58 last fall.

Employers and business groups say competition for MBA-level jobs is stiff. “I still believe there is high value to having a master’s in business administration,” says Larry Dicke, chief financial officer and executive vice-president of the California Chamber of Commerce. “It demonstrates to me that this person has upper-management potential. There are more hiring opportunities because of that background … and you do get paid more.”

He advises people contemplating an MBA who may feel stymied professionally: “When the ceiling is closed … go get the MBA and do a part-time program.”

Roger Niello, former state legislator and county supervisor and now president and CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, agrees.

“General economic conditions are such that everybody is cutting back,” Niello says. “Fewer jobs are available, and companies are significantly more challenged. … But I don’t think that in any way compromises the value of the degree.”

Among employers who continue to recruit and hire MBA students and grads from area business schools, state retirement system CalPERS must follow stringent civil-service guidelines. Salaries may be somewhat lower than in the private sector, but such positions include excellent benefits and a high degree of job security.

Did You Know?    Nearly two-thirds of community college students who transfer to the University of California complete a bachelor’s degree within three years — a rate comparable to “native” UC students, those who are eligible and enter as freshmen.

As with other government and nonprofit positions, a portion of federal student loan debt also can be forgiven under certain conditions after 10 years of repayment.

As an independent pension fund, the agency is somewhat insulated from political pressures, although it has taken major media hits in recent years over various pension fund scandals and widespread concern about public pensions.

“Hiring hasn’t stopped, but it hasn’t been aggressive or robust,” says PERS spokesman Brad Pacheco.

Colin Crane, 31, who was initially hired more than five years ago as a paid, part-time MBA graduate intern from UC Davis (the typical path to landing a permanent, full-time job as an investment officer), specializes in private equities and has risen rapidly up through the ranks.

“It’s important to have the skills to work with private-equity managers and fit with the team,” Crane says. Applicants who pass the civil service test and are invited for interviews must also master a timed test of their ability to interpret complex financial tasks and errors using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. “It’s a very specific skill” and key to job productivity, Crane says.

MBA programs in the Sacramento area all have career counseling programs and alumni groups, and students serve internships with employers who are actively cultivated and recruited.

“We actually got through the recession fairly well, and a lot of that has to do with our relationship with employers,” says Christine Dito, senior director of career services for the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. “When companies nationwide started cutting back, it didn’t impact us as much as other schools (because) we’re involved with employers from the outset.”

UC Davis offers business or MBA graduate programs on campus as well as at satellite centers in Sacramento and San Ramon. Tuition ranges from at least $70,000 for the two-year, on-campus program to more than $96,000 for San Ramon center students, who receive catered meals and books as part of the cost.

Many grads say the ties they forge in their graduate programs are carried into the workplace.

“Having the business degree means that I’m more efficient and entrepreneurial in how I approach my job,” says Mary Beth Barber, media consultant and communications director for the California Arts Council.

Armed with a creative writing degree from the University of Michigan, she completed her MBA last year at Drexel University, which opened its Sacramento program aimed at working adults in 2009. Current tuition for the entire two-year Drexel MBA is $58,000.

Like many grads, Barber, 43, remains close to her Drexel classmates and praises the networking benefits of the degree.

“There were a lot of group projects, and the teamwork was incredibly important,” she says. “I thought maybe my diverse career path would be a liability, but they were looking for creative minds, and it made the discussions very interesting because you had this mix of people.”

Sandra Kirschenmann, director of Drexel’s Sacramento Center for Graduate Studies, says the program encourages the teamwork critical to business success.

“Our focus is on the practical nature of work,” she says. “I really feel this is the formula for higher education going forward.”

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