Hidden MBA Gems: How These B-Schools Have Embraced The STEM Surge

“It’s another one of the things that we’re trying to do for our students.” 

“There are myriad reasons why it can benefit a program.”

“It allows our students to be competitive in that market.” 

Business schools have been going STEM — designating all or part of their MBA and other master’s programs as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — for a while now. All the cool kids at the Top-25 schools have taken the plunge, offering STEM concentrations or certifying other master’s degrees as STEM as they seek to shore up flagging international enrollment and respond to industry demand for graduates with more technical know-how. 

But the schools outside the Top 25 haven’t been idle. A Poets&Quants analysis finds that second-tier STEM has strong momentum in 2021, with all but a handful of schools in the top 100 now offering some way for their B-school students to leave with a coveted STEM degree on their C.V. Some offer concentrations within the MBA, others promote dual degrees; many offer STEM specialized master’s degrees, while a few are going all-in and offering all of the above. The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business is the latest to take the full-time plunge, announcing last month that its entire MBA program has achieved STEM certification.

“Going STEM” is one thing, but making an entire MBA program STEM — that’s commitment. By certifying its full-time MBA as STEM, Ohio State Fisher joins a smaller, more rarefied movement-within-a-movement whose members include five of the top-10 B-school in the U.S. — Stanford, MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth, Columbia Business School, and UC-Berkeley Haas all have completely STEM MBA programs — and 10 other schools ranked 26th to 100th that have designated their entire MBA program as STEM.

“STEM is something we’ve been talking about for some time,” Roger Bailey, director of Ohio State Fisher’s full-time MBA program, tells P&Q. “There are myriad reasons why it can benefit a program. It’s another one of the things that we’re trying to do for our students.

“Fisher, as often as we can, is leaning in to those decisions when we have the opportunity to improve our student experience — to offer those things that put flexibility in the program to meet individual student needs.”

JUST 9 SCHOOLS IN TOP 100 HAVE NO STEM DEGREE OR PATHWAY

Even before certifying its full-time MBA as a STEM program, the Fisher College was like the vast majority of smaller U.S. B-schools in offering some pathway to a STEM degree, with Master of Accounting and Specialized Master in Finance degrees carrying the designation. In the Poets&Quants top-100 MBA ranking, 91 B-schools had some path to a STEM degree, whether a concentration in the MBA, a dual degree, the MBA in its entirety, or a different specialized master’s degree, most commonly Business Analytics but also Finance and Information Systems. See the tables on pages 3 to 7 of this story for details.

Only nine schools in the entire 100-school ranking have no discernible STEM pathways or programs — discernible meaning easy to find on the B-school’s website. This is key. STEM information tends to be easy to find because schools see it, rightly, as a major selling point. Notably — and we have noted them below — many unranked programs have embraced STEM, as well.

Ohio State Fisher Dean Anil Makhija sees the move to STEM as simply the latest evolution in business education. It is a step forward for small and large programs alike — though it is attached to one of the largest public universities in the country, the Fisher MBA, with an acceptance rate of 37%, has an enrollment under 200 students, and the B-school is ranked 35th by Poets&Quants and 37th by U.S. News — not a final destination.

“We see this as part of the disruption that is taking place in graduate education,” Makhija tells P&Q. “And this means that the programs that we are offering already have to be retaught often and improved. And so this is part of that continuous improvement process. The full-time MBA program has been going through a very detailed redesign process and beyond toward, shall I say, the very advanced stages of redesign. It’s a perspective that we are taking, as a college, in all our programs.

“This is the transformation that is taking place in business — what I would call digital transformation. There is much more opportunity now to use quantitative skills to address business problems. So this fits in the bigger picture and fits in perfectly for this program.”

SMALLER SCHOOLS ACTUALLY PAVED THE ROAD FOR STEM

It’s true that the large and well-known MBA programs have embraced STEM in a big way in recent years. Last year alone, as Poets&Quants reported, more than a dozen large and highly ranked U.S. B-schools designated all or part of their full-time MBAs as STEM; the list of programs with STEM pathways includes 22 of the top-25 MBA programs.

A central question: Why? Because science, technology, engineering, and math fields are considered essential to U.S. economic competitiveness and growth, the U.S. government grants non-citizen graduates of programs with STEM designation a dispensation to work in the country longer without needing a visa, via the Optional Practical Training program. So, partly in response to demand, partly to entice greater application volume from abroad, in the last five years leading B-schools have unveiled STEM certificates, concentrations, or more in their MBA programs, and a whole host of STEM specialized master’s degrees as well.

These programs’ immediate popularity has had major implications for business schools looking to shore up heavy international student losses of recent years — losses which predate the Age of Trump, but which the former president’s policies unquestionably exacerbated. They have been further exacerbated — temporarily, it is hoped — by the coronavirus pandemic.

But while it has been easy to focus on developments at the top programs (see the table on the last page of this story) it was the smaller, lesser-known schools that paved the way — and that arguably need STEM more to help shore up their MBA student populations and keep pace with industry demand. 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 historically had among 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 crowned it Program of the Year.

“We didn’t want to separate groups of people and create sub-sections of the MBA,” former Simon Dean Andrew Ainslie told P&Q at the time. “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, providing a model for other schools, offers MBA students 10 specializations that can lead to a STEM MBA, 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. 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.”

STEM: NOT JUST FOR INTERNATIONAL MBA STUDENTS

Ohio State Fisher’s international MBA population fell from 31.1% to 26.8% between 2017 and 2019; in 2020, that number collapsed to just 12%. No doubt coronavirus bears most of the blame. But while Fisher’s leadership hopes STEM will help that population grow again, like Rochester Simon, the B-school in Columbus expects STEM to appeal to both international and domestic applicants.

“STEM does a couple of things for our students,” Roger Bailey says. “The diversity of the students that we bring into the program come from many different backgrounds, and so regardless of whether you are a domestic or an international student, being able to come into our program and go through a STEM specialization can send a strong signal of quantitative ability to potential employers.

“What we’ve noticed is that this format is also not just appealing to our international students, which is kind of given that international students will be interested in this format. But a bunch of our domestic students, U.S. citizens, permanent residents are also interested in getting that STEM designation. The simple reason is because employers are looking for that designation on MBA students, on credential and resumes, and it just makes business sense for them to get that designation, to be more appealing to that employer base that they’re targeting.

“Given that many of our students do not have that strong quantitative background, this allows them to be competitive in that market. And of course with that also comes the benefit to our international students, the extended OPT, and we care of course about the benefits that provides, the security that provides and the opportunities to come here to the United States and stick around.”

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