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Whether their expertise is in communication, managing people or supply chains, accounting, mergers and acquisitions or product development, the graduates of Kentucky’s 14 MBA programs clearly are key building blocks for business growth in the commonwealth.

Kentuckians can pursue an MBA as traditional college students or on weekends, nights or completely online. And Bluegrass State businesses want them.

The master of business administration degree is 100 years old this year. An exotic specialty in 1908, the MBA came into the mainstream in the post-WWII years and conquered the business world. President Bush holds an MBA from Harvard. While many students take a path directly from college to graduate school, most who pursue MBAs today are already-working adults.

An MBA traditionally is an entree to the corporate fast track or an important element in an entrepreneur’s tool belt for success. MBA holders frequently are the key project managers, the finders of efficiency, the organizers or reorganizers, the communicators, the product developers, the leaders who push an organization to grow, who handle crises, who increase productivity.

A business degree provides knowledge and skills, and an MBA provides the know-how to apply them in the real world, according to program coordinators. Programs usually include some form of practicum element in private businesses or government offices.

Kentucky’s postsecondary institutions graduated 689 MBAs in 2005-06, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. From 1999 through 2006, the MBA degree total is 4,244. Most are in general business skills, but about 10 percent have specialties in accounting or integrated information or communication systems.

In March, the state’s newest MBA program began putting its first set of 20 students through their paces at Midway College. It is 160-year-old Midway’s first master’s degree program, said William Drake, college president.

The 1,700-student school’s business management program already catered to the adult student and had existing relationships with area corporations such as Toyota, Lexmark and Ashland, Drake said. But alumni had been inquiring about the possibility of earning a Midway MBA, too. The Woodford County institution chose to grant their wish when it gained Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation last December to move from Level 2 to Level 3, permitting it to offer master’s degrees.

“We have so many students who have graduated in our business program, particularly our organizational management program, who have come to us and asked when Midway is going to offer an MBA,” Drake said. “This first group that’s coming through is highly seasoned. We’ve been very selective.”

Among those taking Midway’s MBA courses for four hours one night weekly are a physician, an architect, a business owner and government workers. As a group, they will navigate the 36-credit-hour program by taking one three-credit-hour course per eight-week session with a six-credit project course in the final session and graduate in 20 months, Drake explained.

Elsewhere, a wide diversity of programs are designed to fit the needs and lives of almost any potential student. Perhaps the most rigid is the full-time, total immersion track at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics in Lexington. The 74-member cohort set to graduate June 6 will have gone at it from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for a year, in that time absorbing a 44-credit-hour program that would normally take two years, said Mary Lee Kerr, MBA program director at Gatton.

This track includes Project Connect – Kerr calls it “a redefined internship” – in which teams of four or five students are assigned to work afternoons with an area company focusing on the three key business modules identified when Gatton revamped its MBA program just over four years ago. Those areas are new product development, supply chain management, and mergers and acquisitions.

The teams work real-life projects with COOs, CFOs and CEOs at Brown-Forman, Alltech, Valvoline, Keeneland, United Way, Humana, United Technologies, Tempur-Pedic, Brunswick, O’Charley’s and others.

“When you complete the program, you have experience doing these projects for a company,” Kerr said. “You’re learning managerial and leadership as well as decision-making skills in running a business.”

Gatton also has an evening-class MBA program for working professionals. It takes two or three years to complete, depending on a student’s class load, Kerr said. That program has “about 100” students. There were 35 to 45 new students in the latest enrollment group.

UK revamped its MBA program earlier this decade, Kerr said, with lots of input from its corporate partners, its business foundation board, faculty, alumni and others. For example, the supply-chain-management module offers Six Sigma Green Belt Certification, and the product-development module includes specific elements on idea generation, finance, marketing, human resources, economics and accounting.

“We look at what some of the corporate recruiters want, need and expect of an MBA student. We totally revamped our MBA program based on the skill sets that are needed in the marketplace,” Kerr said.

Sixty percent of UK’s MBA students are from Kentucky, said Kerr, and a similar percentage tend to stay in the state upon graduation.

At the other end of the spectrum from Gatton’s full-immersion is Campbellsville University’s all-online MBA, which it inaugurated in January 2007. Classes are presented in six eight-week terms through the year, but the time it takes to complete the 36-credit-hour program is up to the individual student, said Patricia Cowherd, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Campbellsville.

“If you wanted to go fast-paced on the program you could finish in one year,” she said.

CU’s online MBA program has students who live in Danville, Harrodsburg, Lexington and Pineville, Cowherd said. The online faculty oftentimes live out of state. Online classes do not “meet” but feature assignments due by specific deadlines. Faculty and student communication is online at any hour of the day.

Campbellsville also has a weekend MBA program with classes that meet on campus.

Eastern Kentucky University has full-time and part-time MBA programs, and offers specialized tracks in accounting and in integrated communications, said Judy Spain, director of the MBA program and a professor of business law. Eastern finds communications ability “the No. 1 skill corporations are looking for” in MBA grads today.

Among Eastern’s approximately 100 students, Spain said, some 60 percent are working professionals, about 25 percent are international students and 40 percent are getting tuition reimbursement from their employers. Full-time students can finish the 30-credit-hour program in 18 months while the part-timers tend to take two or three years to complete their evening classes, which some attend via interactive television link at Eastern’s “extended campuses” in Corbin, Danville and Manchester.

So how does the business world like the commonwealth’s MBA “product”? Well, count tuition reimbursement as a vote of confidence. Meanwhile, one of the biggest “consumers” would have to be Humana, the Louisville-based Fortune 500 company. At least a third of its top 150 executives have MBA degrees, said Michele Koch, Humana’s manager of talent outreach. And among its top 450 company officials, more than half of those who have MBAs got them from Kentucky colleges and universities.

Humana views its internship program for MBA students as a hiring pipeline, Koch said, and has increased the number of interns from two in 2006 to 25 this year. As for a difference in quality among schools, Koch said at Humana there is heavy consideration of an MBA graduate’s other work experience, not just the degree.
In the past five years, Humana has more than doubled its number of Kentucky employees. Koch said the corporation could have grown anywhere, but chose Kentucky.

“We now have 10,000 associates in Kentucky,” Koch said. “It speaks to the talent level of the candidates that we can find here.”

There’s an ongoing effort to hire more MBAs directly tied to Humana’s plans to grow, she said. “We now have a large cohort group and have the opportunity to do something with them.”