An MBA Designed For Capitol Hill Staffers

Economist Steve Parente is spearheading the Carlson School's new Industry MBA in Washington. D.C.

Economist Steve Parente is spearheading the Carlson School’s new Industry MBA in Washington. D.C.


What make the idea even more unusual is that Carlson doesn’t even yet have an online MBA program, but has now been putting more of the core MBA curriculum online for its part-time MBA students in the past three years. The school now offers a dozen online courses in its part-time option in Minneapolis and is putting the final two core courses online by the end of this year.

The thought that it could use those courses as the foundation for a complete degree program online came out of a strategy meeting at Carlson during the summer of 2014. “We were making inroads on the flex MBAs by having more courses go online but there was concern that the courses needed to be more tailored and seamless,” says Parente.  “We asked ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could find a way to offer something intriguing online?”

The leap to a Capitol Hill MBA came from Charles “Chip” Altman, a retired U.S. Navy Commander who heads up Carlson’s military initiative. A former associate dean at the Marine Corps War College, Altman has helped vets transition to a civilian life through Carlson’s MBA program. He suggested that Congressional staffers, largely humanities and liberal arts majors, could benefit greatly benefit from the degree.


The question posed at the strategy session led to a number of conversations and a good deal of research. A former senior legislative staffer for the Senate Finance Committee who now works for McKinsey & Co. was among many interviewed to determine if there was an unmet need. She had gotten her MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. “A lot of people were admiring her and saying that is the right degree,” says Parente. “Talking to her was a little bit of an inspriation. We could see the need for the degree.”

Parente brings a good deal of connections to the game. Once a Congressional staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, he was familiar with how so many staffers come to the Hill with liberal arts backgrounds from prestigious schools but have little to no business knowledge. They stay a few years and then often have difficulty transitioning into something new. Parente also had bumped into many aides on the Hill when he worked for a think tank in Washington and was an advisor to Sen. John McCain during his unsuccessful Presidential campaign.

To test the Potomac waters, Parente arranged with a former student who runs a new media company in D.C. to invite Congressional aides to an event in March at the Hawk ’n’ Dove on the Hill. “You might typically get 100 or so people to something like,” says Parente. “This time we had 250 folks. It was the highest turnout they’ve ever had for a happy hour. After I took the mike in the little bar and announced what we were doing, we were swarmed with questions. The median age in the room was probably 25, with a 50/50 split between women and men. It was a great portfolio of people to be in a full-time MBA program.”


Carlson’s offering will essentially be more than a professional master’s in a specialized business area but less than an Execuive MBA. “We’re using the EMBA program we have now as a template,” adds Parente. “This new Industry MBA has 48 credit hours, while our full-time MBA has 72 and our Executive MBA has 49.5 credits. This is going to be a fast-paced degree, with the core, ethics and business law, and then a deep dive into all four industries. These people are athletes. They run 90 to 100 hours a week, but their summers are quieter. We’re designing the program to fit with the ebbs and flows of their workloads on the Hill. It should work out fairly well. We think this is a niche that is underserved.”

Why wouldn’t staffers be more interested in a public policy degree than an MBA? For one thing, The MBA has replaced law as the multi-purpose degree. For another, maintains Parente, “They are already well steeped in public policy. To a certain extent, they already have experience writing memos and engaging with constituents. What we are really doing is acquainting them with skills for business and commerce.”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.