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Are graduate degrees becoming the new bachelor’s degrees?

Louisville-area graduate programs help working professionals compete for tomorrow’s jobs

By Robert Hadley
BG Magazine – Greater Louisville

Young professionals are increasingly going back to school to get an MBA to beef up their resumes and qualifications. Four individuals who recently graduated from Louisville-area universities are, from left, Jeff Weaver, University of Louisville; Nicole Daniels, Spalding University; Tim Crockett, Indiana University Southeast; and Amy Haeberlin, Indiana University Southeast.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There’s a version of the American Dream that says if you go to college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree, your formal education is complete — you are ready to pursue your chosen career. While it’s true that fields such as law, medicine and teaching have long required additional training beyond a four-year degree, the expectation in other fields was that a bachelor’s degree was sufficient, certainly enough to make you competitive with the majority of jobseekers in the workforce who might only have a high-school diploma.

Today, however, workers face a different landscape. The bachelor’s degree has almost become as common as the high-school diploma once was. The recession has flooded the workforce with more available workers, and employers are weeding out candidates by insisting on graduate degrees (master’s level or above). There’s a sense, too, that better-educated workers are necessary for success in today’s service-driven economy, much more so than when the majority of U.S. jobs belonged to the manufacturing sector.

Increasingly, employers are looking for candidates with master’s degrees, especially the MBA (master of business administration). Offered for decades by Harvard, Wharton, Stanford and other top business schools, the MBA has long been seen in some circles as a necessary pedigree for a prestigious career with a Fortune 500 company.

But has the MBA lost its luster? After all, the same thing that happened to the bachelor’s degree (death by popularity) could theoretically happen to the MBA, couldn’t it?

Not necessarily, say directors of graduate business programs in the Louisville area.

Jon Bingham, director of Indiana University Southeast’s MBA program, said the fundamentals of supply and demand seem to be working to assure the degree’s value.

“Because there are more MBAs coming out, in a sense, more (job) positions are expecting to have that level,” Bingham said. “Even though you’re not distinguishing yourself from as many people as you once were, you’re still adding great value. Employers may be expecting that level of development earlier in the path of career development.”

Dr. Denise Cumberland, director of Spalding University’s master of business communication degree program, predicts that as society focuses more on education, employer demand for advanced degrees is likely to increase.

“Organizations have become very cognizant of the need to train their employees, to continually build their skill sets,” Cumberland explained. “Sometimes they will have their own internal training programs to keep their employees very much on the cusp of what’s happening in their industries, and sometimes the organization encourages their employees to pursue advanced degrees by partnering with local universities such as Spalding.”

Selecting the right graduate program

If you’re interested in career enhancement with a business-focused master’s degree, several area colleges offer distinct programs. The University of Louisville, Bellarmine University, Indiana University Southeast and Sullivan University each offer traditional MBA programs. Spalding University offers a master of business communication degree, which attempts to meet a need the college thought was not being met by traditional MBA programs.

“What (MBA graduates) are missing is a skill set in interpersonal relationships and communication skills,” Cumberland said. “Being able to present material effectively in the sense of understanding the business landscape, knowing how to lead others, how communication is such a huge factor in leadership” are some of the core strengths the degree seeks to teach.

Bingham pointed out, however, that the two graduate business degrees offered by IUS, the MBA and a master of science in strategic finance, attract a well-rounded group of students from the arts and sciences, engineering and traditional business fields, such as marketing.

“Our curriculum for the MBA program is very broad in nature,” he said. “We have a couple courses that are more quantitative in nature, and some that are almost exclusively verbal in nature. No matter what background you start with, you’re going to have to work both sides of the brain.”

Charles Moyer, dean of the University of Louisville’s College of Business, said UofL’s MBA program has embraced the discipline of business communication and already has hired one of three faculty members they plan to add to specialize in that area. The college’s MBA program offers professional development modules in crisis communications and negotiation skills, in addition to traditional advanced business courses, Moyer said.

“I think the students learn a bag of analytical tricks, analytical skills they can apply to solve lots of business problems,” Moyer said. “Not just finance, accounting and marketing, but also people skills, organizational behavior and human resources management.”

(UofL’s entrepreneurship program recently was ranked No. 20 nationwide by The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur magazine.)

Dan Bauer, dean of Bellarmine University’s W. Fielding Rubel School of Business, said employers are demanding both analytical and communication skills.

“What employers want is that combination of both – they want everything,” Bauer said. “The most valuable MBA graduates are the ones that have both the analytical skills – accounting and finance – and very strong communication skills.”

Sullivan University offers several business-related master’s degrees: a traditional MBA, an executive MBA and a 24-month dual MBA and master of science in managing information technology. The executive MBA is geared toward working professionals with five or more years of experience and can be completed in a year. The traditional MBA offers focuses in healthcare, hospitality management, accounting and strategic marketing.

Eric Harter, dean of Sullivan’s business program, said the university is launching an accelerated MBA that students can complete in as little as nine months, through online or in-person classes, or a combination of both.

“Some MBA programs do turn out number crunchers,” Harter said. “However, we offer a more holistic approach where conflict management, ethics and traditional management, marketing and finance courses are delivered by our faculty of scholar-practitioners.”

The value of advanced degrees

In much the same way a bachelor’s degree gave workers a broader perspective and additional skills compared with a high-school diploma, master’s degree candidates often see greater opportunities within their organizations and outside of them. The graduate students interviewed for this article seem to agree that having advanced training will help to update their skill sets for the 21st century.

IUS graduate Tim Crockett, who completed both the MBA and M.S. in strategic finance, found something surprising as he interviewed candidates for positions at the physician practice where he serves as executive director.

“I realized if I was applying for one of these jobs that I was hiring for, I wouldn’t even make the cut,” he said. “The cut that we use very often is, ‘Do you have an advanced degree?’ A lot of younger folks coming through the ranks have them.”

Crockett had taken a few graduate classes after finishing his bachelor’s degree in accounting from Valparaiso University in 1985. He enrolled in the IUS program in 2009, after completing the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), which is commonly required for admission to MBA programs.

“The GMAT was challenging,” he noted. “I hadn’t seen algebra and geometry since my high school days, so I actually bought books and studied at the library.”

Sometimes students – especially those who are transferring between universities or have been away from the academic world for awhile – need additional coursework before they can enroll in graduate school.

Amy Haeberlin, an accountant with UPS Inc., had already earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bellarmine University. When she decided to complete her MBA at IUS, she took a required course in operations management, as well as the GMAT, before enrolling.

“It (the MBA) keeps me competitive at UPS in accounting, since we have a very educated workforce,” Haeberlin said. “I took a class on systems thinking, which I’d never encountered before. I’m in a project management group right now, so (it helped) me develop creative solutions.”

The ability to take something away from the classroom and apply it at work is a key selling point for graduate degrees. This is especially true with the advent of the Internet and other new communications technologies. Crockett recalled that while his marketing classes from his earlier time in graduate school are still relevant, using modern Web-based, social media platforms was new territory.

“At Valparaiso, we talked about the half-life of a degree being four or five years for the technical information you learn,” Crockett said. “But how to think, the philosophy, how to analyze, those are things that stay with you forever.”

Nicole Daniels, a diabetes clinical consultant with Humana Inc., agrees there was a learning curve involved with students returning to college after several years away.

“I really just jumped in,” Daniels said. “I hadn’t been to college in 15 years, so I had to learn what Blackboard (an online learning environment) was and how to do some things online. I spent more time in my first class writing papers, doing a little more research to make sure I had the right format.”

Daniels earned a master’s degree in business communication from Spalding in May 2012. She initially considered a traditional MBA, but changed her plans after evaluating the curriculum.

“I couldn’t really get motivated for the MBA,” she said. “I knew I was going to wait until my son finished school. I knew it was the right thing for me. I looked at the classes, and they were all about things I was interested in doing.”

Master’s degree a ticket to success?

Dr. Cumberland at Spalding University cautions that since education is just one of the factors that can accelerate one’s career, advancement is never guaranteed to students. That’s why the university relies on networking with alumni to help students find opportunities, as well as having career services available.

“I’ve been very pleased, being relatively new in my role, to hear the amount of success that people have had once they’ve earned the degree,” she said. “We’ve been very successful in watching our student body blossom, meaning that they have succeeded in procuring this degree; they’ve seen their careers take off.”

One person who saw his career morph in an unexpected way was Scott Smiser, a recent graduate of Bellarmine University’s executive MBA program. The executive MBA does not require students to take the GMAT, but it does require several years of work experience in a supervisory or management role. This degree is typically completed in 16 months; Smiser finished his in one year.

“I was able to take an elective during the summer, on top of the regular summer course,” he explained. “I think the biggest challenge was getting mentally prepared to go back to school after being out for 10 or 12 years.”

The unexpected change to his career occurred when upon graduation, Smiser left his long-time role with Baptist Health to launch Visum Healthcare Solutions, a consulting firm helping hospitals meet new information technology requirements for electronic medical records.

“Really, that program rejuvenated my entrepreneurial flair,” Smiser said. “I decided now’s a better time than any to go out and (start your own firm).”

Graduate degrees also can help people near the beginnings of their careers transition into new fields. Jeff Weaver, a 2012 graduate of UofL’s full-time MBA program, landed a job with Humana on a team responsible for promoting healthy behaviors among customers.

His undergraduate degree in economics had prepared him for his work with Vocational Economics, but the MBA gave him a broader perspective on general business.

“The biggest gain I’ve had is how to run a business in terms of management, leadership and finance,” he said. “Especially how to work on a team, where you fit in the company and where your company fits in the industry.”

Juggling time and family commitments with school

As many of the students pursuing graduate degrees are working professionals who have returned to school after launching their careers, juggling the demands of family life and higher education can be challenging. All the degrees mentioned in this article offer evening classes, sometimes in an accelerated format, to cater to the needs of working adults.

For example, Cumberland said Spalding’s degree program is conducted in four-hour classes one night a week during a six-week session. This allows completion of the program in 10 to 20 months. With the IUS MBA, students typically take six credit hours a semester and can complete the degree in two years (three if they pursue the M.S. in strategic finance simultaneously). Both programs are planning online components down the road, which would allow for even greater flexibility.

The luxury of online classes would definitely be a benefit for the working parent.

“It was difficult,” Haeberlin said about taking night classes. “I’m a single mom, so there were times I wouldn’t start my homework until 10 or 11 at night, and work until the early hours of the morning. Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of homework, mostly papers and projects you could complete around your own schedule.”

If you’re considering returning to graduate school, it’s important to evaluate the costs involved. Admissions tests, such as the GMAT, can cost around $250, plus study materials or prep courses. Any pre-requisite courses required by your college will likewise add to the cost.

Tuition varies among schools and programs. For example, IUS charges Kentucky residents in-state tuition, $390 per credit hour, which translates into around $14,000 for the entire 36-hour MBA degree. Spalding’s 33-hour master of business communication program is priced at $580 per credit hour, or just under $20,000 for the degree. These figures do not include the cost of books or academic fees.

Students have several options for financing their graduate degrees, such as borrowing the money or receiving tuition reimbursement from their employers. Spalding offers tuition discounts when companies send five or more of their employees through the degree program at the same time.

Regardless of the source of funding, a graduate degree can be an achievement that can add not only to one’s resume, but also to one’s life.

“People feel good when they have graduated,” said Cumberland, who herself left a 20-year corporate career to complete her Ph.D. and enter the field of higher education. “It helps you. It’s something that no one can ever take away. It’s the most joyous occasion you could possibly imagine when you graduate. It’s like, ‘Wow, I did it!’”

Robert Hadley is president of IABC-Kentucky and a writer for BG Magazine. BG is produced by The Lane Report.