MBA Program Of The Year: Michigan Ross’ Full-Time MBA

The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

When Elizabeth McLaughlin graduated from the University of Michigan in 2015, she distinctly recalls the bittersweet moment when she left campus for the start of her professional career. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Those four years were the best of my entire life, and now they are gone,’” she says.

A communication studies major, McLaughlin moved on to great success. She joined ABC News’ Washington, D.C. bureau as a production assistant and quickly rose, by the age of 24, to cover military and national security issues from the Pentagon for the network’s TV broadcasts, radio stations, and digital platforms. It was a plum job that brought her to 18 countries across four continents with senior government officials from the departments of defense and state leaders.

In time, McLaughlin found herself more interested in the topics she was covering than reporting on them, so she decided an MBA would be the ideal vehicle to make a career transition. With some uncertainty, she returned to Ann Arbor to earn her degree from the Ross School of Business.


“When I came back, I was unsure because I had already been here and I didn’t think I could recreate the feeling I had as an undergrad,” she says. “But the same magic that I felt for four years has happened again. There is just an intangible magic about this place. People care about it so much that It makes me emotional.”

What McLaughlin, who will graduate next year, is encountering has less to do with wizardry and far more to do with a continually innovating MBA program that puts experiential learning at its core and students at the center of the experience. From the required action-learning project that breaks the academic calendar for seven straight weeks and the seven student-run investment funds to a host of other projects and assignments, Ross demonstrates its belief that students best learn by doing.

Elizabeth McLaughlin will graduate with her MBA from the Ross School of Business in 2022

One of the biggest surprises for the former 30-year-old journalist is that she would get to help lead one of the seven student-run investment funds. “I would not have guessed that I would be leading one of our student venture funds,” she says. “I felt that was a world that would have been impenetrable for a journalist. But I made that a focus of my second year here and I am a co-managing director of it. I don’t think I will go into venture capital immediately but it has been a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.”


What makes the school’s MBA program stand out, however, is its ever-evolving nature. Time and time again, Ross continues to roll out one innovation after another. Little more than a month ago, faculty and MBA students launched the Michigan Climate Venture, a first-of-its-kind, multidisciplinary program at the intersection of climate technology and venture capital. It includes a new student-led investment fund that will disperse cash to early-stage companies in environmental solutions and sustainability. A month earlier, Michigan Ross revealed a new Business + Tech Initiative to prepare students for careers at the intersection of business and technology. Over the summer, Ross launched a healthcare accelerator to provide student teams with grant seed funding and mentorship for student entrepreneurs in the health sector. The school also put in place a new Founders Program in its +Impact Studio, welcoming a half dozen student-led ventures.

The pace of new programs and initiatives is dizzying. “We are built on innovation,” says Brad Killaly, associate dean of MBA programs. “We listen to our students and we listen to our alums. Innovation and creativity are celebrated. We have a culture rolling up our sleeves and trying and doing. That comes from faculty, students and alumni, and from staff. The boldest thing we have done is our ability to make investments in our curriculum, in our community, and in our co-curricular activities to educate and inspire students. It’s our unwavering commitment and success in innovating new courses that equip our students with the most current skills.”

For its leadership in the field of experiential learning and for the never-ending initiatives that keep the MBA forever refreshed and up to date, Poets&Quants names Ross’ MBA the Program of the Year for 2021. For a program that ranks 13th best in the nation by Poets&Quants, Ross’ innovative spirit makes its MBA experience punch well above its weight class. This is the first time, moreover, that we’ve honored a program without a permanent dean. Associate Dean and long-time faculty member Francine Lafontaine temporarily succeeded departing Dean Scott DeRue earlier this year while the university conducts a search for a permanent successor.


Ross is the fifth school to earn this annual distinction. Last year, Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business got the nod for its highly innovative online MBA program. A year earlier, Washington University’s Olin School of Business was honored for its bold and radical revamp of the school’s full-time MBA experience. The University of Rochester’s Simon Business School won the honor for gaining STEM designation for its entire MBA program, the first to accomplish such a feat (see MBA Program Of The Year: Rochester’s New STEM Play). Simon’s lead has been followed by a bevy of other schools, including Carnegie Mellon and UC-Berkeley Haas. Cornell University’s Johnson School won our first MBA Program of the Year award for its Cornell Tech MBA in New York City (see Program of the Year: Cornell Tech’s MBA).

What do these different MBA options share? In some way, each reflects a reinvention of the conventional MBA degree. After all, aside from a business school’s location or culture, the MBA degree is nearly a commoditized academic experience. What everyone learns in a world-class MBA program is pretty much the same. You take a core curriculum of business basics and then choose from a menu of electives that allow a deep dive into a field of your choosing.

But like our other winners, Ross has consistently been out front in adding all kinds of differentiating experiences within its MBA offering to keep it contemporary and current. No less important to the constant updates is the ever-changing nature of its legendary action-learning projects. The assignments given to student teams by companies and non-profits reflect today’s most urgent and compelling challenges.


While many schools have only recently tacked on required consulting engagements with companies and non-profits, Ross is now celebrating the 30th anniversary of its learning-by-doing experience, the so-called MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Projects). “That is at the core our defining characteristic,” adds Killaly. “It is who we are. I know other schools have tried to focus on action-based learning but we are the pioneers and the innovators.”

This past year MBA students at Ross participated in 68 MAP projects around the world from more than 100 potential sponsors. More than 35 faculty members directly advised the student teams, along with a host of research scholars and librarians that helped those teams gain difficult-to-find data for their projects. The school boasts six full-time staff members completely devoted to action-based learning.

Because some 95% of the school’s MBA students are career switchers, the projects also help to facilitate career transitions. Students are asked to rank the projects they find most interesting, and a high percentage are assigned to projects that are among their top five. Oftentimes, MAP assignments are pathways to transitions. They lead to summer internships and then full-time job offers in exactly the field they target.

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