Better late than never. Last week, Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business became the last of the top 25 U.S. B-schools to create a STEM pathway in its full-time MBA program. That wasn’t the plan: The move had been in the works for some time, and Jones Graduate School Dean Peter Rodriguez tells Poets&Quants that while he’d have preferred it had been completed last year, he’s happy with the final result.
The result is that all Rice’s graduate business programs are now certified as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs, including the full-time MBA with 226 students, the Professional MBA with 123, the part-time MBA with 342, and the Master of Accountancy.
“We’d really expected this to be done a year sooner,” Rodriguez says. “We started the process long ago, and then had a reflection about — and some challenges about — ‘Well, how thorough do we want to be? Do we want to achieve STEM certification merely for OPT, or do we think it sends a larger message and that it should have a more pronounced place in our curriculum?’ And so we delayed, not thinking about many consequences. There were other consequences that we were falling behind in my view, other schools who had moved quicker, but we wanted STEM to apply to the whole program. And so we were holding out to try to make it the case that everyone in our Master’s in Accountancy and our MBA program would qualify, as we thought was justified.
“The wait turned out to be more consequential than I’d first imagined. For a moment, I thought our timing was just perfectly wrong.”
‘A GOOD MOVE FOR ALL TOP BUSINESS SCHOOLS’
Rice Jones’ timing was almost wrong. In June, U.S. President Donald Trump announced long-awaited restrictions on legal immigration that many had expected to include the Optional Practical Training program, or OPT, through which MBAs and other alumni of U.S. graduate schools are granted a year to work in the U.S. before requiring an H-1B or other visa. Graduates of STEM programs, however, can qualify for up to three years of OPT, making it a target for U.S. conservatives who say it gives foreign workers an unfair edge over U.S. workers.
Trump suspended the H-1B program but — after intense lobbying by business groups as well as business schools, opted to not touch OPT. Some believe he may yet have something planned for the program, particularly since this is an election year. In the meantime, B-schools that invested over the last three years (and especially in the last year) in establishing STEM designation for their MBAs are breathing easier knowing it wasn’t for naught. That’s a group that includes every top 25 school in the U.S. and several other prominent programs.
For the Jones Graduate School, ranked No. 25 by both Poets&Quants and U.S. News, it’s better — much better — late than never. Going STEM “drives the curricula in the right direction,” says Rodriguez — and sends the right message to prospective students about the future of the MBA and specialized master’s programs, not just at Rice but across the competitive graduate business landscape.
“I’m certainly happy that we achieved STEM for our whole program. I think we could have moved faster,” says Rodriguez, who became Rice Jones’ dean in 2016. “But at the end of the day, it’s a good move, not just for us, but I think for all top business schools.
“I think it’s a more appropriate signal for what the degrees bring to students and where they’re working than not having it. That’s important for us. It certainly signals a shift from where big schools were, let’s say, a decade ago or even longer, on a positive note.”
WITH COVID, ‘MORE CONCERNED THAN I WAS 6 WEEKS AGO’
Rice University is located in Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the U.S. The city, region, and state all are currently under siege by coronavirus. As he spoke to P&Q last week, Rodriguez’s city was on the verge of issuing a new stay-at-home order for residents; by Monday (July 13), the region’s case count had reached 63,864, with 646 deaths, up four from the previous day, according to the Houston Chronicle.
With the numbers trending in the wrong direction, Rodriguez bemoaned the latest move from the Trump administration to restrict international student mobility: a modification to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) that declares that foreign students on F-1 visas cannot stay in the U.S. unless they take some in-person classes. In other words, even as coronavirus cases spike across the country — and even if the pandemic worsens, as many expect it to do — MBA programs considering an all-virtual fall 2020 semester risk having their international students ousted from the country.
“I think that’s where we are now. Of course, we all face the possibility of moving completely online because safety will require that. In that case, we’re forced to make this unnecessary trade-off when we think about not just what’s safe for our students in a health sense, but what’s good for them and their ability to study. Many of our foreign students would have to move back 12 time zones. Pick the program, it just would be infeasible for them to do it without great sacrifice. That’s just too bad.
“With coronavirus, I am certainly more concerned than I was six weeks ago when we looked to be headed in the right direction. I think that what we’re seeing now painfully mirrors what we saw in New York and New Jersey, Louisiana, in late March, early April. And so I’m worried. We’re planning hybrid approaches. We’re trying to be as creative as possible, not having more than 25 students in a room, with ample distancing and face masks. I think we all know that things could change and that could not be enough, either. So I think unfortunately where most of the universities are preparing to ratchet up or ratchet down presence, it looks more like ratcheting down. We will ratchet up if, in the long term, things go back and they’re much, much better. But that seems further off, for sure.”
APPS TO THE FULL-TIME MBA SKYROCKET TO NEW RECORDS
The doubt and concern come as Rodriguez’s school, like most of its peers, is seeing a surge in applications unlike anything since the Great Recession sent swarms of students into the B-school ranks a dozen years ago. In applications, “We are way up, like most others,” the dean says. “I think we learned a lot by extending our deadlines later into the summer, as most everyone did for a couple of reasons. We’re up to record highs actually. We’ve never had this many applications for our full-time program. And so we’ll be fuller than before.
And is the quality of the applicant what Rodriguez had hoped?
“I think the quality is really good,” he says. “A lot of students who would have come in subsequent years have maybe moved their plans forward, but also others are just thinking about what they can get done, because they suddenly have a little more freedom with respect to when they applied and, in some cases, not having to necessarily complete a standardized test because it just wasn’t possible. It’s a really strong year in that sense. It’s been a challenge for all these other reasons — including that many of our foreign students will struggle with getting a visa, so that’ll be interesting.”
Even with considerable headwinds, international applications are up at the Jones Graduate School, too. “They’re at record highs as well,” Rodriguez says. “I think in some ways there was a sense from many of us that it’s a little surprising. You might think more international students would be dissuaded by further restrictions on H-1B visas and the unfriendly environment around international study in the U.S., but also just that the coronavirus outbreak here as substantial as it is almost anywhere, if not more so. But no, in fact, we’ve seen applications really surge on the international side as well.”