MBA education is changing. As a result, it’s fair to ask what, exactly, students now are learning.
For one thing, there are far more institutions in the game. Nearly 500 accredited business schools in the U.S. now grant MBA degrees, a huge expansion of an industry that began a century ago at Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School. There’s no mystery why. Business schools give students access not only to learning but also to social networks, job recruiters, and considerably higher pay than they’d get without the degree.
For another, curriculums are evolving. Many new programs are a third shorter than the traditional two-year norm. Even at top-tier schools, first-year students spend fewer hours in class than in the past, as field trips, student consulting projects, international excursions, CEO visits, club events, and more crowd the calendar. It’s great to see students get their shoes dusty with real-world forays, but I fear they are losing the ability to read a balance sheet or parse the kind of complex data they’d get in case-study coursework.
And teaching methods have changed. More and more MBA instruction is now done by young PhDs with little or no business experience, whose career tracks are driven by publishing narrowly focused articles in academic journals. Accreditation of business faculty is based on advanced degrees, research publications, and understanding the theory of learning. What doesn’t seem to count is experience in studying or, better yet, managing organisations in complex situations.
The MBA degree has slipped in quality. Many professors point out they cannot give the same exams they did 20 years ago because the students could not pass them. Adding to the problem is the perverse, mutually reinforcing dynamic of students seeking high grades and professors wanting better teaching evaluations. Too many students are distracted and disengaged. The situation is somewhat like the one American industrial companies faced in the 1970s and ’80s when product quality slipped but was covered up by marketing and moving up-market.
So here’s a proposal to make sure MBAs are actually learning the skills they need: competency tests, administered to all graduates.
Other fields do this. Graduating law students have to pass bar examinations in order to practice law. Chartered financial analysts have to get by tough CFA exams. Such tests are designed to protect students as well as employers and clients. They ensure that the school delivered on its mission to educate, and that the student is in fact what he represents himself to be.
Why shouldn’t business schools and MBAs face the same discipline? A competency test for MBA grads could cover basic concepts and applications in accounting, finance, operations and technology, statistics and data analysis, organizational behaviour, marketing, strategy, and entrepreneurship. Accreditation bodies should simply require this.
And while we’re at it, why not require teachers to pass an experience test? Freshly minted PhDs are paid well to teach because their students get paid well for the MBA, not because these young instructors are necessarily qualified to teach management. The most effective teachers I’ve encountered have been those who have worked in business, government, or non-profits–any place where managers face a messy, fast-moving world. Accreditation bodies should set standards for teachers’ prior work experience.
MBA programs should push for competency tests and faculty experience requirements. Everyone — students, faculty, and employers — would benefit.