They go by different names: disrupters, rising stars, upstarts, and catalysts. A decade ago, you would’ve found those labels slapped on Facebook, YouTube, Tesla, and Hulu. They were the up-and-comers, fresh and flashy and daring and dynamic. The experts celebrated them as clear breaks from the status quo – a glimpse into the future where solutions were faster and cheaper or more all-inclusive and personalized. In other words, these firms held the promise to upend what people should expect…and ultimately how they lived.
You won’t find that same mobility in graduate business schools – not on the surface, at least. The industry could serve as a case study on barriers to entry. Infrastructure and accreditation are just two hurdles. In reality, the MBA landscape is driven by branding where a moniker like M7 serves as a status symbol. Such schools draw the most talented students (on paper) because they boast the most respected names, widest resources, and deepest pockets. This creates a virtuous circle, one where their graduates land the best jobs with the highest pay.
THE INNOVATORS THAT RANKINGS OVERLOOK
The MBA market is a battle for inches – or rankings, if you will. That has created an arms race of sort, a push to refurbish facilities and enhance programming that drives up expectations and costs for everyone. In the process, every innovation is mimicked and codified across the spectrum. Once upon a time, hands-on learning was the cornerstone of the MIT Sloan and Michigan Ross experiences. Now, team-based, employer-supported projects are embedded in every business school core. Required international excursions? That spread like mad from USC Marshall as markets exploded and the globe grew increasingly interconnected.
That begs the question: Which business schools will produce the next innovations?
Chances are, they will bubble up rather than trickle down. That’s one reason why Poets&Quants creates an annual list of the “10 Business Schools To Watch.” While inputs and outputs slot rankings, substance and soul set the bar. This year’s list features MBA programs that have distinguished themselves in two ways. Not surprisingly, many have launched curriculum experiments or made investments that are spurring a momentum that can’t be measured in incremental instruments like rankings. At the same time, others are wrestling with issues that are increasingly defining national discourse.
Here are the business schools that are expected to dictate the pace and agenda for other programs to follow in 2019.
Washington University, Olin Business School
Dean Mark Taylor isn’t afraid to make bold pronouncements. That includes making clear that he wants Olin to become “the most international program in the world.” Hyperbole? Not when you back it up– and Taylor will be doing exactly that in 2019.
Want to know what a business school truly values? Just look at the activities and courses that open its MBA program. In Olin’s case, it is a global immersion for the Class of 2021…and beyond. This isn’t just any stale voluntary excursion that happens during their second year. Here, it starts in June, back when most MBAs are wrapping up work, boxing up belongings, and jetting off to Melbourne for some R&R. Instead, Olin first-years are meeting up in St. Louis for orientation before heading to Washington DC, where they receive intensive training from the Brookings Institution, the most cited think tank in the areas of foreign policy and global economic development. From there, candidates spend the next month in Barcelona and Shanghai, taking classes, conducting research, and delivering projects on behalf of corporate partners.
Oh – and Olin is doing all this without increasing tuition.
Taylor, who joined Olin in 2016 after serving as dean of Warwick Business School, views this curriculum revamp as a “boot camp” – one that provides an opportunity for students to build camaraderie while being exposed to a diverse set of business practices and cultural mores. “They will work together and travel together and the international students in the cohort will naturally show their colleagues around in other parts of the world,” Taylor notes. In that time, it will be more than academic tourism. It will be a chance to begin to understand doing business in Europe and Asia.”
That’s not the only wrinkle being added by Olin, which was supported in this initiative by the Boston Consulting Group. To offer great flexibility, students can also choose from durations ranging from 14 months to 2 years. The former accommodates students looking to cut opportunity costs and return to their careers sooner, while the latter supports career switchers seeking for a transformative experience and Olin’s trademark close-knit community. At the same time, Olin invested in its strengths. While its MBA program consistently produces placement rates among the best, Olin still restructured its Weston Career Center. That included boosting its staff by a third and placing staffers on the east and west coasts – as well as China.
In other words, this program “re-launch” (as Taylor calls it) offers a larger menu of options and opportunities to students. However, the underlying message is this: The experience matters – and must be differentiated to continue attracting the best candidates. “Prospective MBA students are searching for value for money,” Taylor adds. “You are not just buying an MBA as a way to get you the next job. You have to really think about what you want.”
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