Simmons Shuts Down On-Campus MBA

Simmons Provost Katie Conboy

Simmons Provost Katie Conboy

A PUBLIC APOLOGY FROM HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL’S DEAN

Early last year, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria made an extraordinary public apology in acknowledging that HBS had sometimes offensively treated its own female students and professors. Nohria conceded there were times when women at Harvard felt “disrespected, left out, and unloved by the school. I’m sorry on behalf of the business school. The school owed you better, and I promise it will be better.”

In recent years, the most highly selective MBA programs have been in am arm’s race of sorts to recruit and enroll more women, offering more scholarship money and holding special recruiting events with alumnae. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School broke a barrier in female enrollment four years ago when nearly 45% of its incoming class was composed of women. This year’s incoming class at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management boasts the highest percentage of women ever at 43%, up five full percentage points from last year’s 38% total. Full-time MBA students at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business are now just under 43% female, placing the school at or near the highest among top-ranked schools. Those numbers represent a significant shift for a student body that was less than one-third female just two years ago.

As business schools began recruiting more and more women into their MBA programs, Simmons’ own offering slipped under the radar, a consequence of its failure to get ranked by U.S. News and other organizations as well as its failure to smartly market the program. For the most recent U.S. News ranking, for example, Simmons didn’t even bother to complete a survey with information on its MBA program, leaving all of its data point listed as not available. The school has also failed to make any of the most influential MBA program rankings by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, The Financial Times, and The Economist.

A PARALLEL WITH THUNDERBIRD’S DEMISE?

The demise of Simmons’ on-campus MBA is not dissimilar to what happened at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. When Thunderbird pioneered the notion of teaching global management, it was something of a novelty and the school was a clear pioneer. But its differentiation began to fade as most business schools hired international faculty, recruited non-U.S. students, and amped up the global content in classrooms. Thunderbird’s niche disappeared and the school fell into financial troubles that led to its acquisition last year by Arizona State University.

It doesn’t have to go that way, however. In contrast, Babson College, which has based its differentiation on entrepreneurship, has successfully competed with the big B-school brands by intelligent and savvy marketing, keeping its MBA program more up-to-date, expanding into the Bay Area, and insuring that its program is consistently ranked among the best graduate business school offerings in the U.S. Yet, just about every business school rival has loaded up on entrepreneurship courses and faculty.

SIMONS ENTERS AN ALREADY CROWDED ONLINE MBA MARKET

As a substitute for its on-campus MBA program, the school announced that it has reached a partnership with 2U Inc., an online education provider that has similar MBA programs with UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, to go online with a traditional MBA as well as a Health Care MBA. Simmons will begin recruiting students for these programs in January, with the intention of matriculating its first online students in March of 2016. Like its on-campus program that was the first designed for women, both men and women will be invited to apply.

Professor Patricia Deyton, associate dean for graduate programs, is the director for the online programs. “She is working with SOM faculty on curriculum, course sequencing, and ‘immersion weekends’—when cohorts of students from across the country will be together on the Simmons cam[us and in other locations for intensive learning experiences,” said Provost Conboy. “Career services will be critical to the success of our online MBA/HCMBA students, so this will be a priority on the front end of the program development work.”

Simmons may well find the competition in the online space as difficult as it was for its on-campus program. All told, there are at least nine business schools in the Top 50 in the U.S. that now offer online MBA programs: Carnegie Mellon, the University of North Carolina, Indiana University, USC, Maryland, Penn State, Arizona State University, Florida, and George Washington. Babson is just outside the top 50 and leads at least another dozen business schools in the second half of the Top 100, which includes Northeastern University, Penn State, and Syracuse University. The acceptance rates for these programs, with better brand equity and rankings, are significantly higher than their on-campus equivalents, making it harder for Simmons to find a sustainable niche. Bottom line: Simmons’ online strategy may well be too little, too late.

SIMMONS ALSO IS SUSPENDING RECRUITMENT FOR ITS MASTERS IN MANAGEMENT PROGRAM

Provost Conboy, however, believes the greater focus on gender issues in its online MBA curriculum will help to differentiate the offering. “An ongoing challenge for businesswomen in their very busy schedules, which require balancing many demands and can complicate their ability to travel to a campus to complete their degree,” she said in a statement. “Many men face these challenges as well, in the national context, there are thousands of people who simply have no accessible campus-based options for an MBA.

“Our new online MBA programs will address this challenge directly. Beginning in January 2016, we will recruit all prospective MBA students for only our online MBA/HCMBA program offerings. We will offer current MBA students the opportunity to choose online options as their specific courses become available in that format. And we will suspend recruitment for the Master of Science in Management program as we focus efforts on the online transition.”

DON’T MISS: RECORD WOMEN & GMATS AT KELLOGG SCHOOL OF MANAGEMENT or HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL DEAN MAKES AN UNUSUAL PUBLIC APOLOGY