Among the 15 biggest business schools in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis is behind only the University of Minnesota in total enrollment, with 680 students across multiple MBA programs (among more than 1,100 total graduate students) as of fall 2019. But the Opus College full-time MBA has been struggling for years with declining enrollment. By last fall it had shrunk to just 28 students, and this month the school announced a suspension of the program — with the dean declaring that it was unlikely ever to be resurrected.
David Spalding, dean of the Ivy College of Business at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, sees what’s been happening at B-schools like St. Thomas’ across the upper Midwest of the United States: applications and enrollment plummeting and MBA programs shuttering, their resources transferred to online or specialized master’s programs — a process, necessary but ugly, of “cannibalizing.” It’s a process Spalding is determined to avoid at Ivy, home of the state’s top full-time MBA program after the 2019 closure of the Tippie College of Business MBA at the University of Iowa.
He has cause for confidence. If Ivy is able to elude the fate of its cousin it will be because the school keeps putting itself on the map — through the launch of new programs that fuel big rankings improvements, or because the school has made a little history.
This story is about both. Because in the same year that the Ivy College saw its rankings fortunes rise dramatically in two major annual lists, the school has made the kind of history that attracts a lot of good attention by enrolling an equal number of women as men in its full-time MBA. It’s a first for the school and only the second time a top-50 school has achieved the distinction of MBA gender equity since USC enrolled 52% women in the class of MBAs graduating from the Marshall School this year.
“We have reached a goal that some of the highest-ranked MBA programs in the country, programs like Harvard and Stanford, have not yet been able to achieve,” Spalding tells Poets&Quants. “All of this important progress is connected to the fact that we are a college on the move.”
ON THE MOVE
The Debbie and Jerry Ivy College of Business is certainly a school on the move in a pair of major rankings. Ivy climbed into the U.S. News top 50 last year, settling into a three-way tie for 47th after ranking 79th the year before. The school also saw impressive improvement in P&Q‘s ranking, where it jumped 21 spots — the second-biggest one-year improvement among all 100 ranked schools — to land at 70th.
Now Ivy is a school on the move in another high-profile way: the drive for gender parity. Not only is the school’s fall 2019 MBA intake split evenly with 17 women and 17 men, but 47% of its part-time MBA program — ranked 81st in the country by U.S. News — are women as well. Meanwhile, in a move that may have presaged parity in the MBA, the school has spent the last six years building up its ranks of female faculty, to the point where Ivy now has the most women at the front of the classroom in the Big 12, a collegiate athletic conference that includes the University of Texas-Austin. Iowa State’s B-school has 44 female faculty to 73 males, and nearly equal the number of tenure-eligible instructors: 15 women and 16 men. “Not only are we top of the Big 12 now in terms of percentage of women faculty,” Spalding points out, “but we also, among those Big 12 schools that report that data, have the highest percentage of women entering MBA class as well.”
None of this, he notes, happened by accident.
“First, we raised the level of our program and our ranking increased to 47th in the nation. Second, we laid the groundwork by aggressively hiring highly qualified female faculty,” Spalding says. “We went from having the lowest percentage of female faculty in the Big 12 to the highest percent. More women in the front of the classroom draws more women into the classroom.
“It’s my seventh year as dean here at the Ivy College. And when I came in, I looked at the demographic breakdown of our enrollments, and it was clear that we were a little shorter where we needed to be with female enrollments. I think there is an expectation today on the part of the industry, as they look to diversify the workforce, that as a lifeline, we’re here to provide them diverse candidates and recruits. It also is absolutely the case that students learn better in a diverse environment. I came into a situation where it was something I felt we needed to address right away.”
CAN THEY KEEP IT GOING?
One application cycle after USC shocked the graduate business education universe by enrolling 52% women, the Marshall School’s numbers fell back to Earth, landing at 42%. Twelve other top-25 schools have 40% or more, led by Stanford GSB and UPenn Wharton (both at 47%). Iowa State Ivy stands alone.
Yet looking at the last five years, there is reason to believe Ivy’s accomplishment may also be a one-off. The school went from 42.1% women in 2015 to 29.7% the next year, then jumped up again to 44.7% in 2017 before slipping to 35.3% the following year. So: Can they keep it going?
“Well, we’re certainly going to work hard!” Spalding says. “We’ve had a very strong recruiting effort bringing in strong female faculty, because we believe that if you want greater diversity in the classroom, you need to have greater diversity in the front of the classroom. And that’s certainly something that we’ve worked hard on and achieved.
“Secondly, you have to rethink your marketing materials and you have to think very clearly about the pictures that you’re using, you have to really think very carefully about the language you’re using to describe your program. One of the elements that we emphasize in our full-time MBA program is nonprofit; I think it’s something that makes us look like a little bit of a different MBA program, a little bit different MBA experience. And I think that that certainly has an appeal to women.
“And then the last element is, a high-quality program always attracts more applications and that could be a little bit more discerning in kind of knowing your class. And so the path that we took last year in the us news and world report rankings moved up to 47 among the whole nine MBA programs and put us in the top 10% I think that applicants last year are viewing us differently and applicants this year are viewing us differently and that’s giving us better flexibility to fill the class.
Why is achieving — and sustaining — gender parity so hard? Jackie Rees Ulmer, associate dean for professional master’s programs at Ivy, says the college had to rethink its entire admissions process.
“We completely revamped our admissions process and every applicant gets a very hard look,” she says, “and we make sure we are including, not just admission specs and career services, but also bringing in the academic side as well as the student service side to really make sure the students we are admitting are going to thrive in our program. And I think that opened the door for a few people that maybe it wouldn’t have.
“We’ve also been very intentional about going to where our female students tend to be. We’ve tried to meet with the women in science and technology and engineering organizations, because at Iowa State we have strong communities and schools in the sciences. And we just to try to get in front of good audiences and tell them what great things the Ivy MBA can do for them in their careers. We’re going to keep doing that, and keep learning from where we do well and where we don’t do so well, and reassess and keep going.”