Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 24.
The STEM MBA: It’s the next big thing that’s already here. Because Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields are considered essential to U.S. economic competitiveness and growth, the government grants non-citizen graduates of programs with STEM designation a dispensation to work in the United States longer without needing a visa. So, partly in response to demand, partly to entice greater application volume from abroad, in the last three years several leading U.S. business schools have unveiled STEM certificates, concentrations, or more in their MBA programs.
These programs’ immediate popularity has major implications for business schools looking to shore up heavy international student losses over the past two years — losses which may predate the Age of Trump, but which the current president’s policies have unquestionably exacerbated. In the most high-profile case, Rochester University’s Simon Business School first witnessed the positive impact of STEM designation in its portfolio of four specialty master’s programs three years ago, then launched the country’s first STEM MBA last fall. We crowned it Program of the Year.
Poets&Quants has compiled a list of 18 schools (and counting — this story will be updated as new programs are announced) that boast STEM designation in some element of their MBA programs, including certificates, concentrations, dual degrees, and Rochester Simon’s total-degree approach. One program involves taking on a “second major.” Several others seek to lure applicants with STEM-designated specializations.
IN NEW HAVEN, A SAVVY INVESTMENT
The years-long decline in international student interest in studying in the U.S. can largely be traced to the roadblocks that have been erected for those looking to stay in the country after they graduate. That decline is most keenly felt at mid-tier schools. Embracing STEM is a logical response. At one mid-tier program, that embrace has led to a radical overhaul of not only the school’s MBA program but its whole portfolio of degree offerings.
Over the past 18 months, the University of New Haven has made a series of strategic decisions to integrate STEM programming into both its undergraduate and graduate business programs. As it has done so, the hoped-for response has occurred: From fall 2017 to fall 2018 MBA apps jumped 27.6%, from 163 to 208. So far in 2019 (New Haven appraises MBA applicants through the summer, so the numbers are certain to rise), international students comprised by far the majority of acceptances to the two STEM-designated tracks of Financial Analysis and Data Analytics: 85% of the former and 86% of the latter, and a total of 86%. In New Haven’s STEM MS Finance program, launched in the fall of 2017, 77% of enrolled students are international.
The actual numbers aren’t huge — the total number of 2019 acceptances to both STEM tracks is 50 students — but they represent a big deal for a small school, a jump from 19% of total MBA acceptances in 2018 to more than 30% so far this year.
“We have about 20% of our graduate students that are international,” says Brian Kench, dean of the College of Business at the University of New Haven. “India’s number one, China is number two, and then actually Saudi Arabia is an important player. But we’ve got a recruiter that’s on the ground in India reporting back to us on the decision-making process, how candidates look at which programs are STEM in the U.S. and then how they start choosing among the schools. That’s an important element of why we want to be in the game, particularly with the MBA program.
“That started in the fall of ’18 and it certainly did what it was supposed to do. We saw our relatively small numbers move from 15 or so international students up to 30 in the STEM-designated areas. The movement was right, we had just launched it, there was really no marketing associated with it, but that was an important signal.”
WISCONSIN, ROCHESTER PAVE THE WAY
International graduates of U.S. business schools currently may hold U.S. jobs for only 12 months before needing an H1-B visa — a visa that has become harder to get amid a heated and protracted political debate on immigration. To address a shortage of qualified workers in STEM fields — a shortage that by some estimates will grow to more than a million jobs by 2024 — the federal government in 2016 created the STEM Designated Degree Program, which makes it possible for international graduates to remain stateside for an additional 24 months after graduation and receive training through work experience. That means students with STEM-designated master’s degrees can work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation without a H1-B visa. Reading the room, schools began designing and offering STEM programs to respond to demand and attract new interest from foreign applicants.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison became the first business school to receive STEM designation for concentrations within an MBA program, in 2016. The next year, Duke University added a certificate program of courses to its MBA program which allowed for a STEM designation. And in 2018, the University of Rochester — whose Simon School has one of the highest percentages of international students in a full-time MBA among top 50 B-schools — became the first school to have its entire MBA program designated as STEM.
“We didn’t want to separate groups of people and create sub-sections of the MBA,” Simon Dean Andrew Ainslie told P&Q in December. “So we put together a STEM program where any student can do any specialization whatever and be STEM-certified at the end of the program.” Simon offers MBA students ten specializations, including banking, corporate finance, product management, operations, pricing, and technology.
Simon had tested the waters before plunging in with the MBA. The school gained STEM designation for its MS in Marketing Analytics and MS in Business Analytics in September 2016. Simon added STEM designation to its MS in Finance in December 2016 and to its MS in Accountancy in July 2018. Applications surged by 41.4% for all four programs, to 4,104 in 2017-2018 from 2,903 in 2013-2014. And the surge came with a bonus. “Much to our surprise, our U.S. applicant pool went up as well,” Ainslie said. “The MS in Business Analytics program has been like watching a rocket take off. We went from 50 to 60 applications when we introduced the program to over 1,100 this past year. I am sure the growth results from a combination of reasons so I can’t be sure how much of it you can attribute to it being a STEM-certified program.”
NOT JUST AN INTERNATIONAL DRAW
At New Haven, where the total number of graduate students has jumped from 190 when Dean Kench began his term in 2015 to 310 now — a 63% increase — the school has seen domestic interest in his school’s STEM programs, too.
“We’re picking up that it’s important in the labor market to differentiate yourself, so it is both an international play and a domestic student play,” says Kench, who became New Haven’s dean in 2015. “You’re getting a really interesting set of skills which is clearly in demand. I think there are a couple of national reports that just came out saying there’s going to be a shortage of folks that are trained in analytics over the next five to ten years and this is a set of skills that’s going to play to that. There is a clear demand for that.
“You see domestic students taking that STEM MBA, and while they could theoretically take the general MBA, or take another concentration in business analytics that’s two courses shorter, they couldn’t find their way through the program and get the necessary tools. They’re actually choosing to jump into the STEM bucket, because there’s a seal of approval that comes with having a STEM-certified program.”