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As interest in full-time MBAs declines, enrollment in specialized master’s degrees climbs

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Local business schools have seen enrollment climb in specialized master’s degree programs in fields such as cybersecurity, information systems, finance and sustainability management at a time when interest in their flagship MBA programs continues to stagnate or wane.

These specialized programs typically require less time to complete and offer a curriculum tailored to graduates’ preferred field, features that have resonated with students during an economic downturn in which jobs are scarce and often competitive.

Now several universities are expanding the number of master’s programs they offer, sometimes adding several at a time, in hopes of capitalizing on the rising demand and securing a new source of tuition dollars.

The University of Maryland’s business school had just introduced its second Master of Science program back in 2009. The two programs, accounting and finance, enrolled 115 students.

Today, the school counts 784 students among four programs and plans to add another master’s degree, in marketing analytics, that will begin next fall.

Ken White, the associate dean for MBA and M.S. programs, said the programs primarily attract students with freshly minted undergraduate degrees and limited work experience. With a master’s degree, young people feel they will be more competitive for jobs and eligible for higher salaries, he said.

That’s true beyond the campus in College Park. The Graduate Management Admissions Council, purveyor of the business school admissions test, annually surveys hundreds of business programs around the world.

Michelle Sparkman Renz, GMAC’s director of research communications, said that applicants to specialized master’s programs have increased in each of the five years since the survey began. Most of the students are young with little exposure to the workforce.

American University began offering this fall a master’s program in sustainability management, which combines courses in business, policy and environmental science. The program brings the business school’s total specialized master’s degree count to five, with preliminary talks under way to create another in marketing.

Lawrence Ward, associate dean for academic programs, said more students are delaying entry to the workforce or holding onto jobs while pursuing advanced degrees. As a result, they are seeking programs that can accommodate varying lifestyles.

“Business schools have to be responsive to what the consumer is telling us,” Ward said. “And increasingly they’re saying, ‘I don’t see enough value in a traditional two-year program.’”

While full-time MBA programs have fallen a bit out of favor, many schools have seen greater interest in part-time or executive MBAs, which are designed for students with managerial experience.

Still, White at the University of Maryland said some school administrators question whether the trend will persist. Each program requires an investment and demands more of faculty.

“Right now the number of applications are extremely high to M.S. programs, and it’s hard to believe that this would continue,” White said.

“Schools are being very cautious as to how we move forward, making sure we’re conducting market research and talking to students and looking at the competitive landscape,” he added.

George Mason University currently offers a Master of Science degree in real estate, accounting and, more recently, technology management and cybersecurity.

Gerald A. Hanweck, associate dean for graduate programs, said four other programs are at various stages of development.

The programs at George Mason are largely taken by older students, many with years in the workforce or even an MBA already tacked on their resume, Hanweck said. That’s in part because employers are more inclined to pay for degrees that can be directly applied to the employee’s role at the firm, he said.

“What they want is really stuff they can put right into use in their employment,” he said.

“From the point of view of the students, they want to be able to apply it right now,” Hanweck added. “We’re feeling a lot of pressure for the right now.”

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