The Rise of the Specialty Master’s

Practically every twenty-something has a “five-year plan,” an idea of where they want to be by the end of that timeframe and a rough idea of how they are going to get there. And, like all plans, they are never as straightforward or simple as they may seem initially.

Tyler Louie’s five-year plan was as straightforward as they come. He graduated from Northwestern University in 2007 with an engineering degree and went to work for Motorola as a software engineer. He figured he’d get the extensive professional experience he’d need to have a fighting chance at a top business school, keep his contacts in the technology industry, and “go from there.”

It took about 20 months for Louie’s plan to change.

In January of 2009, Louie heard about a specialty MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and applied that April. He would be a member of the Master’s in Management Studies (MMS): Foundations of Business program’s first graduating class. A specialty MBA was, and somewhat remains, a nominally known degree on the whole. Yet despite having a position as a software engineer at Motorola and even a competing offer from another software company, Louie applied to the program as soon as he caught wind of it.

“It offered a good blend of what I needed to get to go where I wanted to quicker,” says Louie, now vice president of user experience at BNY Mellon. “It did end up being an alternative to an MBA but just in terms of what I wanted to get out of it.”


Louis is hardly alone. According to a survey of U.S. business schools conducted by the Association to Advance Collegiate Business Schools, some 148,299 students were enrolled in these specialized business master’s programs in 2010, a whopping 50% increase over year-earlier numbers. Enrollment is expected to rise again in 2012 because 73% of last year’s GMAT test takers indicated they intended to concentrate on a specific area of study.

Schools are responding to the demand by dramatically increasing the number of available seats for these programs and launching new master’s in everything from Management in Clinical Informatics at Fuqua to Financial Engineering at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. There were 2,444 specialized master’s programs worldwide in 2010, a 21% increase from a year earlier, according to the AACSB.

At Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, for example, enrollment in its Master of Finance program has tripled in one year. This fall the school will admit some 120 students in the program, including 80 full-time students, up from what had been merely a part-time program with just 40 people enrolled. “We might have to launch another cohort next spring just because we have limited classroom space and have had to turn people away,” says Phillip Phan, a Carey professor who had been interim dean.


The increasing interest in specialty MBAs is a direct result of a growing acceptance of the degree by universities, applicants, and employers alike. “We’ve become highly specialized in the corporate world,” says Joe DiAngelo, Jr., Chairman of the Board at AACSB. “Information systems, for example, started providing bonuses for employees with specialized skills. Corporate technology has become easier to use so business strategies have changed. Now it’s business intelligence, not creating the data but analyzing and organizing it.”

For the Master of Finance degree, adds Phan of the Carey School,  “A lot of big companies are trying to build an internal capability to work more effectively with Wall Street. General Electric and General Motors are putting more emphasis on the asset management aspects of their business. The large industrials are not going to do financial management and derivatives themselves but having an in-house capability helps them work with Wall Street more effectively.”

Dramatic Growth For Specialty Master’s Programs in the U.S.

Year Programs Enrollment Degrees Conferred Applications Offers
2010-2011 291 44,004 20,376 54,490 28,982
2009-2010 293 39,689 17,652 46,840 26,387
2008-2009 283 36,716 16,128 37,546 21,490
2007-2008 276 35,798 15,656 30,245 18,797
2006-2007 273 29,993 12,784 24,378 16,089

Source: AACSB Data for 492 AACSB-accredited schools in the U.S.