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How Alabama Manderson Earned Its Place In The Sun

Alabama photo

When you’re the business school for a perennial college football power, you’re accustomed to being overlooked. But the spotlight keeps growing brighter for the University of Alabama’s Manderson Graduate School of Business, part of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Business. That’s because the Manderson School has been vaulting up the rankings, climbing from 63rd two years ago to 41st in the latest U.S. News list. Among public universities, Manderson is 20th, up from 26th last year.

What’s behind the surge? The secret may be in science — and technology, engineering, and math.

Though Wisconsin usually gets credit for being the first B-school to receive STEM designation for parts of its MBA program, back in 2016, by that time Alabama was already graduating the first cohort of a five-year program. Since launching in 2011, the Manderson School’s STEM Path to the MBA has created hundreds of young grads with both bachelor’s and MBA degrees — grads who find jobs with such varied employers as Lockheed Martin, ExxonMobil, EY, Pepsi, Ford, AT&T, and other household names.

Poets&Quants talked with Alabama’s Sharif Melouk, associate dean of graduate business programs, and Rob Morgan, marketing professor and director of the STEM Path, about the unique qualities of Alabama’s MBA program, and whether they see the coronavirus pandemic derailing the school’s seemingly inexorable progress up the ranks. The short answer: probably not, thanks in part to an already strong online presence that led to a smooth transition to virtual learning in mid-March. Looks like Alabama Manderson will just have to get used to the spotlight.

NO ARGUING WITH SUCCESS

Rob Morgan. UA photo

A couple of points jump out from quick scan of available data for Alabama Manderson. First, the average age of entrants to the full-time MBA is 22 — about seven years younger than at most B-schools. Second, the overwhelming majority in the MBA have engineering backgrounds — about 58% in the latest intake, according to U.S. News. Not only is it unusual for engineering to be the top undergraduate major over business, it’s unusual for any one major to so dominate the others. The next closest undergrad major for Alabama Manderson MBAs is business/commerce at 18%; see the table above for comparisons with peer schools in the latest U.S. News ranking.

Both points have a simple explanation: Manderson’s STEM Path to the MBA program is the main pipeline of talent to the full-time MBA. About 110 students go through the program to start the MBA each fall, which equals about 68.8% of each class.

Here’s how it works: Manderson recruits incoming freshmen who hold at least a 28 ACT (the school’s average is 32.1) and 3.5 high school GPA (average: 4.17), who are intending to major in a STEM discipline. That includes engineering, computer science, math, life sciences, physical sciences, and all of the healthcare professions. Beginning in the fall of their freshman year, students take a 1.5-credit-hour STEM Business Honors course each semester they are undergrads, where they are introduced to various business disciplines and do lots of small-group innovation projects and presentations. They typically formally apply to the MBA in the fall of their junior year, take their first MBA courses during the summer between their junior and senior years, then do the bulk of their MBA studies during the 12 months after graduating undergrad.

When Alabama launched the program in 2011 it had 64 freshmen in the program; 20 finished the MBA. Today, the Manderson School typically has about 350 freshmen start the program each fall and 110 start the MBA each year, Rob Morgan says. Three years ago, the school started a companion program, the CREATE Path to the MBA, focusing on students from creative disciplines like art, music, theater, journalism, and advertising. Morgan also directs that program. “The STEM and CREATE Path students take those STEM Business Honors courses together and both groups benefit from getting the other’s perspective on solving problems,” he says. “Our students have been very successful and have been placed with companies like IBM, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, McKinsey, and many others.”

You can’t argue with success. When Manderson began the STEM Path to the MBA program in 2011, it was ranked 78th by U.S. News. Now it is ranked 41st. So why the lack of attention?

“It’s probably one of those deals where the success of the football program covered over everything else going on,” Morgan says with a laugh.

THE NICHE: YOUNG, BUT HIGHLY SKILLED, MBAs

Sharif Melouk. UA photo

To qualify for the Manderson STEM Path to the MBA, students must have STEM undergrad majors. About 85% are engineering and computer science majors, Morgan says, with maths, biology, and chemistry mixed in, as well as the occasional pre-med; a handful go on to medical school after finishing the MBA. After their third year in the undergraduate program, when they apply to the MBA, those accepted are effectively dual-enrolled, Morgan says, and they begin taking online graduate courses in the summer after their junior year.

“What we call the STEM faculty, they actually prime up the students to come into the MBA program,” Sharif Melouk says. He joined the Manderson School about a year and a half ago after teaching in the undergraduate programs in the Culverhouse College since 2007. He has also taught in Alabama’s EMBA program. “And so they actually hit on all the functional areas of business administration. So they’re talking to them about marketing, they’re talking to them about finance, and they have a lot of experiential learning-type opportunities as they’re coming up through the undergraduate ranks — really getting them prepared to jump right into an MBA program.”

Before their senior year, the undergrads take nine hours of online courses, some of which are applied toward the MBA. After that they go back to their undergraduate studies; after graduating from undergrad, they spend another summer taking MBA courses, then start an intensive one-year program the next fall. “So in that fall semester, they’ll have about 20, 21 hours toward the MBA,” Melouk says.

“It takes a certain type of student,” he acknowledges. “When they’re coming in as freshmen, these are high-achievers back in high school, and they have to have certain ACTs or certain grade points to get into the program. So these are not just run-of-the-mill students. These are really good, solid kids and they have a good work ethic, they’re going to get after it and they’re going to succeed.

“So when they get to that MBA year, like I said, they have 21 hours under their belt and there’s five classes or 15 hours in the fall and 15 more hours in the spring time. That gets them up to a full 51 hours, which is what they would graduate after that fifth year. And they then, of course, have earned their MBA by that point.”

Alabama Manderson is producing more than a hundred 23- and 24-year-old MBAs every year. “It’s kind of our niche, if you will,” Melouk says. “In terms of our overall program right now, the STEM/CREATE students are making up about two thirds of our graduating class every spring.”

About a third go to engineering companies, typically as project managers, Morgan says; a little over half go into traditional business roles with solid analytic components. These students come out of the school’s concentrations in business analytics or supply chain management, “and I think that’s why they do so well coming out at 22, 23 years old with an MBA,” Morgan says. “They don’t have six or seven years of work experience, but they have the analytical skills and the kind of mindset that employers are looking for.”

BULLISH ABOUT THE FUTURE

U.S. News isn’t the only ranking where Alabama has been on the move: In P&Q‘s latest list, the school jumped to 54th from 64th, placing it among the top gainers last year. And STEM certainly hasn’t been the only reason for the school’s ascent — that would be a foolish assertion about a school with 10 specialty master’s programs, from accountancy to finance to operations management, and three online master’s: management, marketing analytics, and operations management.

The big question on everyone’s mind right now: Will Covid-19 arrest Manderson’s progress? After a smooth transition to virtual learning in March, Melouk and Morgan are bullish on whether the summer and fall will bring continued good news.

“I think we probably have the same amount of chaos that most everybody else has,” Melouk says. “We transitioned to online learning right around the middle of March, end of March. The summertime, going essentially completely online, is going as well as expected and now it’s decision-making time for what’s going to happen in the fall. We are trying to gather information and make a decision there.”

The University of Alabama has decreed that on-campus freshman orientation will be moved online, Morgan says. The prospect of an online fall has not dampened applications to the STEM Path.

“As of this morning, I had 303 admitted for the fall, which is about 25 to 30 ahead of where I was this time last year,” he says. “We’ll pick up another hundred or so admits between now and the end of May. So it doesn’t seem to be impacting us that much. At least right now.”

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