Finding the Time: Part-Time MBA Programs

Programs for working professionals can offer value and flexibility for busy schedules

In any economy, it can be difficult to quit a steady job to pursue an MBA full-time. Many professionals are looking at part-time programs, in which they can continue their employment and tend to their families while also advancing their careers.

Nicole Williams is one of them. She worked in a Los Angeles-area marketing firm for about five years before deciding to go back to school in 2007.

“The only way somebody is going to take me seriously,” she recalls thinking to herself, “is if I go back to school.”

Williams was accepted to Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management’s full-time MBA program. But as she puts it, “life happened,” and she deferred enrollment for a year. During that year, she had landed a full-time job in film financing that she didn’t want to leave, and instead applied and was accepted to Pepperdine’s part-time MBA Program for Working Professionals.

In the year and a half she’s been enrolled, Williams has seen some changes.

“I see the difference in myself in just being able to communicate with the people in my office, and to be able to talk to my boss about cash flows and P&L statements,” she says. “When I started, I didn't have the language. I didn't have the knowledge. I didn't have any of that.”

According to John Mooney, the associate Dean of Academic Programs for Working Professionals at Graziadio, this “reflexive learning” is one of the main advantages of doing a part-time MBA program.

“In many ways,” he says, “a business student's ongoing employment is very akin to the notion of residencies in medical schools. While they are working, (students) can bring, in real time, real issues that they're facing into the learning experience.”

Norm Wilkinson, the director of graduate management programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) sees this, as well.

“We're hearing all the time from our students that the stuff they're learning about in the classroom at night, they're applying the next morning at work,” says Wilkinson.

The advantages of part-time MBA programs don’t stop with the immediate application of knowledge. According to a 2007 study conducted by GMAC, the return on investment for part-time MBA programs is substantially higher than for full-time or EMBA programs, and the pay-back period shorter.

But on the surface, when looking at the costs of part-time programs, this value may not be apparent. For instance, the total cost of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business part-time MBA is about $85,000. When compared to the cost of the full-time program over two years (about $90,000 for two years,) that doesn’t seem like much of a savings.

The breakdown is similar for other schools: UC Berkeley Haas’ Evening and Weekend MBA program costs about $94,000 (versus about $94,000 for the out-of-state, full-time fees); likewise, at UC Irvine Merage, the cost of the part-time program is also about the same as the out-state-full time (approximately $80,000).

But looking solely at the total costs is often misleading. For one, part-time students often get assistance from their employers for tuition. And part-time programs are generally not less rigorous or require less coursework than full-time programs; they are just spread out over a longer time period.

Gretchen Cooper, senior associate director of the University of Chicago Booth’s evening and weekend MBA programs, says that these factors have helped keep demand for part-time programs high, even in a recession.

“Within the past year and a half of a downturn market,” says Cooper, “there is still a high level of interest in MBA programs, specifically in the part-time MBA programs, which are conducive for a student to continue working full time and earning an income.”

What to look for in a part-time MBA

When looking at part-time programs, there are a number of things to consider. Chief among them, because these programs appeal to working professionals, is flexibility. Most programs offer classes outside of the normal work day, either during the evening or on the weekends, but some schools are starting to take flexibility even further.

Pepperdine, for example, offers many of its MBA classes at “distributed graduate campuses” around the greater Los Angeles area to make it easier for students to get to from work or from home.

Pepperdine also has a number of pilot programs that integrate distance learning, or online, devices into the curriculum. Nicole Williams has seen this in a few of her classes, and has been impressed.

“Sometimes we'll have a class where it's completely virtual,” she says. “The professor gives his presentation completely online, and if you want to raise your hand you click a button so he knows you've got a burning question.”

“I think it’s great that they’re trying to prepare us for what’s happening in the real world.”

Likewise, WPI offers all of its MBA courses online. “It's actually quite rare,” WPI’s Norm Wilkinson says, ”for a part-time student to get through WPI's MBA without at some point taking an online course.”

Other programs, like the Chicago Booth part-time options, put more value on in-class learning with no plans to integrate online components. According to Gretchen Cooper, “Chicago Booth faculty truly emphasizes the conversation and healthy debate in the classroom.”

Part-time MBA programs can also be good places to network. Even though part-time students are generally looking to move up in the company they’re in, it’s not uncommon for them to change careers after they enroll.

“When you get into an MBA program you see what else is out there,” says Wilkinson. “You learn about lots of other companies and career paths through your classmates.”

A part-time MBA can also be used for leverage in an employee’s current company. John Mooney says that Pepperdine students see this all the time.

“Many of our students tend to get promoted before they finish,” he says, “and that's a clever strategy on the part of employers, because what you don't want to happen is for somebody to finish their MBA and then decide they want to go somewhere else.”

For Nicole Williams, just the fact that she was enrolled in the Pepperdine program helped land a new job with the city of Los Angeles.

“I wouldn’t have gotten this job without the MBA,” she says.

Photo: Jorgeroyan / Creative Commons (cropped)

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