From Business Analytics to Real Estate, An Explosion In Specialized Degrees

Philip Powell, faculty chair of Direct MS programs at the Kelley School

Philip Powell, faculty chair of Direct MS programs at the Kelley School

Some specialized master’s programs, such as the computational finance degree at Carnegie Mellon, and the MS in Information Assurance at Iowa State College of Business, are interdisciplinary, drawing faculty and resources from multiple schools or departments in a university.


Specialty programs have been multiplying and growing in class size as a result of a confluence of factors. On the student side, there’s growing demand among college graduates who want a quick boost that will differentiate them from others with undergraduate degrees. On the employer side, technological advancement has ratcheted up competition in every sector, and companies want to hire employees who can start producing right away, with little or no training.

But would-be specialty master’s students beware: among the many useful programs are a few that were ill-conceived, and are less likely to give graduates the outcomes they want, warns Tim Westerbeck, founder of the business school consulting firm Eduvantis. “It is not an uncommon situation to go into a school that says, ‘Gosh, we thought this was a really good area to offer a program in . . .  but it turns out we’re having trouble competing,” Westerbeck says. Almost always, school administrators have not paid enough heed to local market conditions: both the job market for students, and the competitive environment with other schools, Westerbeck says. 

Indiana University Kelley School of Business’s Philip Powell is even warier of the specialized master’s degree at many institutions. “It’s an act of desperation by some business schools,” says Powell, faculty chair of the “Kelley Direct” online MS programs. “They’re in it for the fast cash. They want to make a quick buck. Given the way business schools act, the market’s going to be really scarce with really well-designed MS programs. Even the quality schools are going to launch bad MS programs.”


Powell attributes the explosion of specialized master’s programs in large part to declining demand for MBA degrees. “The cost of the MBA has risen faster in real terms than the benefits, and anytime that happens in a market that’s going to open up demand for alternatives that give a better value proposition. Opportunity cost of the residential MBA, it’s just gotten too high. You’re going to see the market drifting to other places. This is classic product substitution that we teach in MBA classrooms,” Powell says.

“If you’re going to be successful with an MS program you have to start with the question of career placement. You begin with the end in mind – you just don’t slap courses together and hope students show up. Think of barriers to entry – if you run an MBA program, how difficult is it to launch an MS program? If we’re not saturated we’re quickly going to be saturated. But I don’t think we’re going to be saturated with the smartly designed MS programs I’m talking about.”

At the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, the master’s program in supply chain management was created with an eye firmly on the job market, says program manager Eric Olson. “Almost every element of our program was developed alongside our industry partners,” Olson says. “That was done to really fill the need that they identified when we went to them and said, ‘What should we be doing to assist you in achieving your talent needs?'” The approach appears to have worked: among the last class, 92% had accepted or received job offers by graduation, 100% by four months, and average starting salary was $107,000, Olson says. 

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.