Tirth Patel is one of 66 students in the Cornell Johnson one-year MBA program, who, like the 84 students in the one-year Cornell Tech MBA, do all their core courses between May and the end of July — what the school calls “a 10-week crash course on business foundations complete with leadership training and a case competition.” After a break, the one-year students for each program go their separate ways, with those in the Ithaca-based program returning to that city in upstate New York in the fall semester, joining the second-year students from the two-year MBA to take their electives.
Drew David Pascarella, Cornell Johnson’s associate dean of MBA programs, was a student in Cornell’s two-year MBA in the late 1990s when the one-year MBA was in its early iteration (the Tech MBA, the 2017 Poets&Quants Program of the Year that is based on Roosevelt Island in New York City, would not be launched until 2013). In addition to his current role in there administration, he’s also been a finance professor at the school, giving him a uniquely wide perspective on the similarities and differences of Cornell’s MBA programs. He remembers how the one-year program came about. “I think the original construction, at least from Johnson’s perspective, was that there was a bit of a niche in the market for a subset of graduates of primarily engineering programs and other technical programs who were working in a technical capacity and were doing quite well, but who needed that MBA polish and were looking to up-tier inside whatever vertical they were in,” Pascarella tells Poets&Quants.
“They were looking to up-tier into a management layer and they were feeling like they were being held back because they were viewed as more quantitative, technical, and not having that polished MBA element,” he says. “So we wanted to give them credit for the fact that they were engineers. We wanted to give them credit for the fact that they had done relatively well in their career and that they weren’t looking for a big two-year transformational lift. And so we came up with this one-year program and said, ‘Hey, we’ll take you offline for 12 months as opposed to 20, and we’ll charge you less, and you’re not looking for as much from us and we’re not looking to do as much with you because it’s not that transformation. It’s more of this sort of incremental move.’ So why don’t we create a new product and have it serve that niche?”
A NICHE, BUT POPULAR, GRADUATE BUSINESS EDUCATION PRODUCT
And it is a niche. The program does not have “tens of thousands of people a year that are interested in it,” Pascarella says. Cornell gets about 300 applications a year, and the number who do enroll, 65 to 70 each year, “is probably the right number of people inside of our ecosystem that would benefit from a smaller format and come in with technical skills and with a technical career and just need a year of college as opposed to 20 months of college.” One big appeal: the total cost of the program is an estimated $141,170, which has risen nearly $25,000, or 21.5%, in three years but which is still about $50,000 less than the cost to attend Cornell Johnson for two years.
It’s also a markedly different experience than Cornell’s executive MBA, or most other schools’ online offerings.
“There’s a little bit less that we can do with somebody at 4 p.m. Saturday and half a day Sunday, in terms of polish,” Pascarella says. “And there’s a lot more we would look for in an applicant and accepting them in that program. Our average age for our one-year residential is 30, as opposed to our executive program, which is 37. They’re very different phases of a career.” What about pursuing an online degree somewhere else, since Cornell doesn’t currently offer one? “I think online is attractive from a price point perspective, and because you get to stay employed,” Pascarella says. “I think the amount of work that we can do with the residential experience for the students far exceeds what you get in an online format.
“They’re not not looking for: ‘Tell me about finance and tell me about accounting only,’ cause they haven’t covered that. They’re looking for: ‘How does an MBA think and how does an MBA interact and how does an MBA lead? How does an MBA work themselves out of difficult management situations?’ So the residential format works better for the type of polish that that student is looking for as opposed to just the sort of pure academic experience that an online program would look for.”
GETTING AROUND THE ABSENCE OF AN INTERNSHIP
Because Cornell has so many years’ experience in delivering the one-year MBA, it has a leg up on the competition, Pascarella says, though he acknowledges that some schools have unveiled compelling new products in recent years. In particular, he notes the launch of Duke Fuqua’s one-year MBA for MiM grads and NYU Stern’s pair of one-year MBAs — a Tech MBA and a Fashion & Luxury MBA. More schools surely are contemplating the launch of one-year programs in the near future, he concedes.
Competing for talent with those and other elite U.S.-based programs, particularly Northwestern Kellogg, as well as the host of international programs that convey one-year MBAs or equivalent graduate certification, is a daunting prospect. Yet Cornell, with its Ivy League bona fides, has another advantage: It has two campuses.
“So we have the mothership up in Ithaca and then Cornell Tech,” Pascarella says, “and we have two opportunities for these one-year students to actually go and and take classes in New York City, over a weekend in the fall and then for half a semester in the spring. So that gives you connectivity to the tech campus. It gives them proximity to New York for recruiting, it gives them a cool story, and it gives them a chance to talk to Cornell alums about, obviously, MBA recruiting. These are some interesting things that give them a little bit of a leg up on the recruiting thing.
“I think the one-year program format is a very difficult thing to deliver to a student unless you know what you’re doing. The summer is a very unique experience because you’re compressing the core into what was almost a year into a summer, and that takes a fair amount of expertise. And then you’re delivering two semesters of second-year MBA experience, but they haven’t come off an internship. If somebody wants to transition from an engineering career into consulting, for example, one of the things that consultants look for is that summer internship, and a 12-month format doesn’t allow for that.
“The lack of an internship is one of the things that we recognized was a problem in the curriculum and in the format of the program that we had the expertise to be able to work around. We have these sort of field projects that we send students out to so that when they are interviewing, they say, ‘Yeah, essentially I’m doing an internship for this client, ABC client, and we have a Fortune 500 that we serve.
“We’ve been doing this a long time, and we do some pretty innovative things.”