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In the lead-up to the school's Saturday ceremony, representatives from the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa designed a T-shirt as a gift for graduating class members.
'Iowa full-time MBA: You can't get in,” the shirt reads - a nod not just to the college's prestige but also to the fact the university students who received full-time professional masters of business administration this weekend will be the last.
The business college announced in August 2017 it was retiring the full-time degree to focus more on its part-time and specialized offerings.
A few converging factors, including declining enrollment numbers and growing costs, led to the decision, said the business college's Dean Sarah Gardial.
'The most compelling thing to us was that we had significant resources tied up in a program that was shrinking year by year,” Gardial said, citing faculty, staff and student support resources.
'Sitting off to the side were programs that were growing, but we didn't have any capacity to get into those markets.”
Gardial said about 24 faculty members were assigned to the full-time MBA program each year and now will be reassigned to other business college programs, including newer graduate offerings, with no layoffs.
Enrollment at the business college had trended downward since the 1990s, with 140 students enrolled in the fall 2012 and 87 students in the fall 2017, university spokesman Tom Snee said.
In 2018, the Graduate Management Admission Council found that, out of 1,087 graduate business programs at 363 business schools nationwide, application volume dropped at 70 percent of two-year full-time MBA programs.
On the flip side, educators say recent enrollment statistics in the college's newer programs make a persuasive case that students still are interested in a business education - just in alternate formats.
At the same time enrollment in the full-time MBA program was dropping, part-time MBA enrollment expanded from 769 students in fall 2012 to 965 students in fall 2017, Snee said.
Nationwide, applications for MBA programs were down 6.6 percent, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council's most recent Application Trends Survey Report 2018.
Considering the labor market
Tippie announced in September it will make all classes required for the part-time MBA available online starting this fall.
David Frasier, associate dean of the college's MBA programs, said the classes already offered online for the program tended to fill up within hours of registration opening, and that market research showed a 'very healthy demand” for more online coursework.
There still is value in a full-time MBA, said Jordan Simpson, a graduate with the last full-time MBA class who said he has a job lined up with Express Scripps in St. Louis.
Because it entails more credit hours by design, he said, the full-time MBA can provide students with more technical skills and serve them well in transitioning to different companies.
That being said, Simpson said, 'I think with the labor market the way it is, it's tougher to justify leaving work for two years to do a full-time MBA.
'The part-time MBA is an opportunity for (students) to stay in their jobs and not have the opportunity cost of not working two years, while positioning themselves to get promoted or work at a higher level,” he said.
Simpson noted many companies also could offer tuition assistance for students working while completing the part-time degree.
New business analytics and finance master's programs the college introduced in fall 2018 also beat what Gardial said were 'conservative” initial enrollment projections, with respective initial classes of 29 and 31 students exceeding the 20-student goal.
More often, Gardial said, business students early in their careers are seeking to specialize in areas such as business marketing or analytics without immediately pursuing full MBAs.
'What we're doing that is unique to Iowa is saying what do people need in graduate business education and how can we flesh out a whole set of opportunities for students around that,” she said.
And the school also has seen heightened recent interest in one of its business-related undergraduate majors - enterprise leadership, which Snee said grew from 167 majors in spring 2015 to 831 majors this spring.
'Young people today are seeing people just like them going out, starting and building incredibly successful companies,” said David Hensley, director of the university's John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.
'Many of them don't necessarily want to go the same traditional route that maybe their parents or their grandparents did. They have their own wants and dreams and aspirations, and they see entrepreneurship as a tool to help them go make a difference in the world.”
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