By Gillette, Becky

When times are tough, it may be an opportunity to invest in upgrading skills by obtaining a master of business administration (MBA) degree. At least, that is apparently what is happening in Mississippi as MBA programs report enrollment gains.

"The current economy is probably helping us overall as many smart and hard-working professionals have been down-sized out of their companies and are using the break as a good opportunity to 'tool up' through an MBA degree," said Dr. Charles Noble, director of the MBA programs at the School of Business Administration, University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). "Total enrollment in the Ole Miss MBA program has increased over 70% compared to last year."

One of the bigger trends influencing the Ole Miss program is more working professionals with busier lives than ever areinterested in getting an MBA. The university is responding to that in several ways.

"First, we offer a Professional MBA program, which uses technology in many creative ways to allow students to interact with each other and faculty in a stimulating learning environment, yet work on a very flexible schedule that suits their lifestyles," Noble said. "Our campus-based program has also recently experienced many changes to appeal to these working professionals, in addition to traditional full-time students. The campus program now holds all classes in the evenings, allows part-time participation and allows admission during any semester of the year. None of these changes has sacrificed the quality of an Ole Miss MBA, which is of critical importance to us."

Noble thinks a significant trend is that more than ever an MBA degree will be required to rise above a certain level on the corporate ladder. While it was once something that really distinguished one manager from others, it is increasingly an expected credential for leaders in the corporate world, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

"Second, the firms that are hiring are increasingly attuned to the brand value of various MBA degrees," Noble said. "The marketplace understands that not all MBAs are equal, which is why we are pushing ourselves to offer the most rigorous and rewarding program possible."

'Up close and personal'

Dr. Bill M. Brister, director of graduate admission, Else School of Management, Millsaps College, agrees that not all MBAs are created equal.

"There are a lot of MBAs out there, and businesses might start discriminating by looking at not just any MBA, but a high quality MBA," Brister said. "A quality MBA from a quality school is very much in demand. Milisaps has a great reputation. It is known as a high quality college. Our graduates almost always get hired."

Millsaps has made the decision not to do a distance-learning MBA.

"We are up close and personal," Brister said. "We have top 10 rankings in the nation by the Princeton Review. We are number eight for quality professors, and this time number three in the country for best classroom performance. There is a lot of discussion and learning from each other and the professors. With distance learning, you don't get that interaction with the classroom and professor."

Brister said Millsaps has a strong focus on leadership. While it is a school of management, it talks a lot about leadership. While it is important to have managers who are very good on details and day- to-day operations, it also focuses on developing a bigger-picture leader who can move a corporation into bigger and better things. The key is skills to lead the organization in developing new strategies and products, and being able to cope with challenging and changing business environments.

"Leadership has to do with communications and ethics, all those things that embody a good leader," Brister said. "That is a major trend of our program, a focus on leadership in addition to detail management."

The downturn in the economy is not a good thing, but hasn't yet impacted enrollment at Millsaps. It is hearing concerns about the cost of the program. People are more concerned about their income and household budget, and have to consider if they can afford the cost of an MBA.

Milisaps has seen rapid growth in its MBA program with 111 graduates in the fall of 2007, compared to 50 three years earlier.

With the downturn in the economy, there might not be as many jobs available for graduates. Brister said while they haven't seen that yet, theoretically that could be an impact of a slowing economy.

But he thinks the future is bright people who achieve MBAs.

"The MBA is a mature degree, meaning it is probably not the glamorous new thing on the block it was 30 years ago," Brister said. "But businesses are still very much looking for smart, driven leaders for their organization, people who know how to communicate well - how to write, speak, persuade and negotiate. We spend a lot time in the classroom talking about that, and being an ethical person so people want to follow you."

Meeting real world demands

Belhaven Colleges uses an MBA Business Advisory group to hone the program to the needs of business today. Dr. Chip Mason, dean of the School of Business, Belhaven College, said the advice of that group has been to add more technology and entrepreneurship training to equip its MBA graduates to be successful in the marketplace.

"We have added computer courses, upgraded educational technology and all our students participate in computer simulations where they compete with other MBA students across the country," Mason said. "We have also added an entrepreneurship course, and every MBA student is required to submit a complete business plan, including marketing and financial analysis, for a start-up business as a graduation requirement."

Belhaven has recently seen increased enrollment in graduate programs as students seek to build their educational credentials in an uncertain economy. All its graduate programs are designed for working adults, so they can continue working full time while they pursue their graduate studies. As gasoline prices go up, the college has seen more interest in its online business programs. But its central location in Jackson still attracts the bulk of their students.

Belhaven started a new MBA cohort in mid-July, and has two cohorts in its Masters in Management program scheduled to start next month. The master ofpublic administration program will start a new cohort in September.

"August is usually a busy time of year for us, and it looks like we will doing better this year than we did this time last year," Mason said. "The MBA is the most recognized degree in the private sector, but we are seeing an increased demand for our Masters in Public Administration and Masters in Management programs in the public sector as managers are using more business tools to serve the public. We find our MBA students to be more entrepreneurial and small business oriented. This bodes well for future economic growth in Mississippi since most new jobs are generated by small businesses rather than Fortune 500 companies."

Thriving in competitive market

Dr. Marcelo Eduardo, dean for the School of Business, Mississippi College, said the slowing economy has brought higher enrollment in the program.

"Students realize that earning an MBA will provide them with tools that will make them more valuable in a very competitive job market," Eduardo said. "But until the economy recovers, those students that happen to be graduating right at this time will be facing a more difficult job environment with less opportunities."

Enrollment is up Mississippi College is poised to have another year of record MBA enrollment.

"Moreover, the concentration areas that our MBA offers - accounting, finance and management information systems - are allowing our students to further gain a specific skill set that makes them very valuable to their organizations," Eduardo said. "Our MBA is designed to prepare students to define and analyze any business situation and to give them the ability to propose a range of options to these problems as well as the framework to make effective decisions concerning these options. In the end, this is what business is about and why an MBA from Mississippi College will continue to provide a wide range of possibilities to all our graduates."

Moving into management

More and more individuals desire the skills or educational gains that will allow them opportunities for promotion into management positions, said Anthony Lowe, manager of program development for the Academic Outreach and Continuing Education at Mississippi State University (MSU).

"Most of these potential students cannot afford to stop working to pursue additional degrees," Lowe said. "Students researching online MBAs who ultimately select MSU are looking for accredited programs, which mimic on campus degrees but provide the flexibility of being completely online. Our program is accredited both academically and professionally. Our online students have the same instructors, the same class size and the ability to participate in those classes from the luxury of their own home or office.

"Rising gas costs, commuting back and forth to classes, in addition to commuting to work, are a tremendous blow to many budgets. Rising costs are forcing our students, as well as many Americans, to make difficult choices. They must look for alternative ways to reduce costs while still trying to pursue their own goals."

The Distance MBA program at MSU is one of the fastest-growing distance programs on campus, said Tamra Swann, coordinator, Academic Outreach and Continuing Education at MSU.

"Changes in the economy are making the ability to study online more and more attractive to consumers," Swann said. "Students are looking for a quality, accredited MBA that is affordable, and our online courses help meet those needs. Our program is listed as a 'Best Buy' by"

MSU's MBA enrollment continues to grow every semester. Swann said in just a few years, this program has grown from a small regional program to a nationally recognized program hosting students from all around the world.

"Many students graduate from non-business fields and have degrees that are very specific and contain very little business curriculum," Swann said. "An MBA added to those degrees helps them take the next step within their organization. The combination of the two degrees allows them to maximize their knowledge of their own specific field while providing the tools they need to move into management positions."

Lowe said there will always be a demand for individuals holding MBAs.

"An MBA is a degree which has value in every type of organization, regardless of profit or non-profit goals," Lowe said. "In a time of such uncertainty, and challenges, organizations will look even more to individuals with strong decision making skills."

Copyright Mississippi Business Journal Jul 28, 2008

(c) 2008 Mississippi Business Journal, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.