Michigan universities change up MBA programs to meet demands--with Dean Virginia Kleist

This article was originally published in Crains Detroit Business. It was written by Sherri Welch. Click here to read the article on Crain's Detroit Business website.

Michigan universities are giving MBA students more options while enrollment in the graduate business programs continues to lag pre-pandemic numbers for many schools.

In general, fewer people are opting into master of business administration programs, given the current strong job market, declines in international students and decreased employer sponsorship of MBA programs for employees among other factors, business school leaders said.


The popularity of online MBA programs, however, is on the rise in Michigan, aligning with national trends.

The value of an MBA is not in decline, but the degree is undergoing the kind of change demanded by learners, businesses and a digital society, said Leah McBride, public relations manager of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Business schools have taken or are taking their MBAs online and are looking for ways to differentiate them.

Graduate management education applications for 2023-24 dipped by about 5% globally, the Graduate Management Admission Council said in its Application Trends Survey-2023 Summary Report, which included responses from 900 or more institutions.

MBA and other business master’s programs reported higher application growth rates among the more flexible online, hybrid, evening and weekend programs compared to full-time in-person programs, GMAC said, while more selective and traditional in-person programs were the most likely to report declines.

“Applicants seeking out top-ranked programs may not necessarily be looking for the same flexibility as other (graduate management education) candidates, but the average candidate appears to be more willing to sacrifice prestige for flexibility,” it said in the report.

Michigan business schools have seen bumps in MBA enrollment over the past year or two, but most that talked with Crain’s said total enrollment in the programs has yet to hit pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Grand Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Detroit Mercy reported lower total MBA enrollment for 2023-24 vs. 2019-20.

MSU this year enrolled a total of 349 students across its MBA programs, vs. 360 in 2019, according to numbers provided by the East Lansing-based university. Its Broad College of Business continues to see relatively steady numbers in its full-time and executive MBA programs, but an increasing number of students are opting for the hybrid option for an EMBA, Cheri DeClercq, assistant dean of Broad College of Business, said in an email.

Detroit-based Wayne State University’s fall 2023 MBA enrollment of about 760 students trailed the more than 1,300 enrollees it had in the program in 2019, said Virginia Franke Kleist, dean of the Mike Ilitch School of Business. Enrollment for the current winter semester, however, is up 6%, thanks to efforts to turn around the program.

A total of 145 students were enrolled in MBA tracks at EMU for fall 2023, up slightly from a year earlier, but still behind the 190 enrolled in fall 2019, according to data provided by the Ypsilanti-based university.

A national trend playing out in local markets is the top MBA providers at large institutions capturing a larger percentage of MBA candidates, said Ken Lord, dean of the EMU College of Business.

For example, the University of Michigan saw enrollment across its MBA programs rise to 1,579 this year from 1,445 in 2019. There were 777 first-year MBA students enrolled this year, up from 735 last year and 761 five years ago. Nearly half are enrolled in the full-time, in-person MBA program, but that number is still down from before the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020.

Enrollment in UM’s full-time, executive, weekend and global MBA programs trailed pre-pandemic numbers, according to numbers provided by the university. But total online MBA enrollment grew to 374 this year from 72 in 2019-20, the year it launched.

Applications for the full-time and online MBA programs for fall 2024 are up 38%, year over year, while UM’s other MBA programs are seeing steady demand, said S. Sriram, associate dean for graduate programs at UM.

Online and hybrid programs

Demand for more convenient online programs that allow students to continue working jobs while they pursue an MBA or other graduate business degrees and to pause, when needed, has been increasing nationally for the past couple of years, according to Inside Higher Education. More full-time MBA students were enrolled in online programs than on-campus ones during the 2020–21 academic year, it reported in 2022, citing data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools, the leading business school accreditation agency.

Like other colleges and universities, MSU is seeing strong demand for online courses within its Executive MBA Flex track. The hybrid format launched in 2020 now represents 36% of the students in MSU's EMBA program, DeClercq said.

“We also experience somewhat of a counter-trend, whereby students are selecting these programs because they are not largely online/part time. That said, we recognize that there is increased interest in online business degree programs and most of the new graduate programs that we’ve started in the last few years have a large online component in recognition of that trend," DeClercq said.

Adding online options

If they didn’t have an online or hybrid MBA program option already, Michigan business schools are adding them.

Wayne State rolled out a fully online MBA last fall, with in-state pricing for out-of-state students. It also reduced the number of credit hours in the MBA program to 36 from 48, bringing the program to a year and a half in length and cutting the cost, Kleist said.

“Now we can have students from Alabama where before, we were regionally constrained,” Kleist said.

Eastern is launching a hybrid master's of science in management of innovation and strategy degree program this fall. It will be delivered by EMU faculty and Detroit-area professionals, in part, over face-to-face sessions at TechTown in Detroit, Lord said.

Is in-person still needed?

The debate over whether MBA courses need in-person interaction is on.

Grand Valley and UM, which have offered an online MBA since 2018 and 2019, respectively, offer them in hybrid formats pairing online courses with in-person participation and immersion.

“We want students to build connections with each other because that's one of the reasons why working professionals who have like seven, eight years experience want to come and do an MBA. They want to meet other people and form connections that can help them in their lifelong career,” UM’s Sriram said.

GVSU’s Seidman College of Business has a similar perspective. 

“We feel that having face-to-face interaction with our faculty and fellow MBA students is a strength of the program,” Assistant Dean Karen Ruedinger said in an emailed statement.

Troy-based Walsh College and Wayne State's Ilitch School of Business, however, are offering online MBAs that don’t require students to set foot on campus.

Walsh did not share enrollment numbers, but Dave Schippers, chief academic officer and dean of academics, said it has seen a higher percentage of online MBA enrollments over the past year or two for its program, which is delivered over Zoom.

About three-quarters of MBA applicants to the private college expect to be able to take courses online, he said. Given that, he doesn’t believe programs that require MBA candidates to be on campus will last.

"Things have continued to escalate that people want, in essence, fully online programs so they can do it at their convenience," Schippers said. "You can still build ties, you can still have very substantive interactions with people and still make connections even though it's in an online format."

Differentiating programs

The growing popularity of online MBA programs is spurring universities to make technology investments that elevate the online course experience. Wayne State, for example, invested in certification of its online faculty and purchased a Lightboard, a suspended pane of glass with embedded LED lights that enables instructors to create video lectures and directly interact with handwritten notes and diagrams while facing the camera.

At UM, online faculty lecture from the Convatec Digital Learning Studio on its Ann Arbor campus. The extended reality studio creates a three-dimensional environment through graphics technology similar to that used in immersive video games.

Institutions are also adding new concentrations and specializations to meet evolving business needs and keep MBAs relevant. UM and WSU have added business analytics programs over the last year or two. UM also began offering an environment, social and governance MBA concentration last year, and Walsh College added an artificial intelligence strategy concentration to its STEM MBA program.

MSU is complementing its MBA programs with specialized master of science programs including what it says is a first-of-it-kind MS in customer experience management, a forthcoming graduate certificate in supply chain management and its marketing research and analytics program along with other programs delivered via online, on-site and hybrid modalities, Associate Dean Richard Saouma said in an emailed statement.

“While other universities are winding down their traditional two-year MBA programs, the Broad MBA has accelerated careers and molded exemplary leaders for now 60 years straight,” he said. “The transformation that takes place in our two-year MBA programs changes the lives of our graduates and their families, and we have every intention of staying the course.”

Trimming programs

Even before pandemic pressures on enrollment, several business schools said they would end their traditional two-year MBA programs.

Penn State’s Smeal College of Business said in 2022 that it would close its MBA program in 2024 as it shifted to a one-year MBA with a STEM focus beginning with the fall 2023 class, according to a Poets and Quants report. And Purdue University in Indiana did not admit any new residential graduate students for its MBA program for the 2023-24 school year except those who enrolled in the STEM-focused MBA.

Others dropping their programs include Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, Wake Forest University School of Business, Virginia Tech, Simmons College and University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business.

Interest in MBA and business education is not going away, UM’s Sriran said. What might change is whether applicants want to quit their jobs and pursue an MBA full time or keep working and pursue an MBA at the same time.

MBAs are still a very sought-after degree because they help graduates grow within an organization faster, move to new companies and switch careers and continue to provide one of the highest returns on investment of any degree, he said.

“No matter the idiosyncratic trends in how MBAs are viewed, an MBA is always of value to the graduate student who invests their time and resources into these programs,” said Kleist at Wayne State. The “change in one’s analytical lens is not necessarily something that shows up in that next promotion or change in job title, but in a lifetime of being trained to think in ways that are rigorous, unbiased, global, strategic, ethical and out-of-the-box."

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