10 Business Schools To Watch In 2024

GSM Commencement

University Of California, Davis, Graduate School Of Management

Big things come in small packages.

Case in point: The University of California at Davis, whose full-time MBA houses just under 100 students. Over the past decade, the Graduate School of Management (GSM) has masterminded some of the most innovative programming in business education. Located 30 minutes south of Sacramento – and 90 minutes north of Silicon Valley – the GSM has picked up the region’s creative spirit, despite operating in a crowded marketplace. After all, California is home to four Top 20 graduate business programs: Stanford GSB, UC Berkeley Haas, USC Marshall, and UCLA Anderson.

How do you compete with that? Simple: You shrewdly fill the gaps they miss. That’s exactly what the GSM has done, developing the first online MBA program and only Master’s in Management degree in the University of California system. And the school’s stackable certificates and life-long learning platform may be models for the graduate business marketplace to adopt.

Like many tales, the GSM story gained steam with the introduction of a newcomer: H. Rao Unnava. After becoming dean in 2016, he launched a Master’s in Business Analytics in San Francisco. It now boasts 100 students annually, with alumni found in companies ranging from Meta to Microsoft to McKinsey. STEM-designated, the MSBA’s latest class was comprised of 56% women. More than that, 2022 graduates started out at $135,000 with $19,000 signing bonuses, one of the best returns on investment according to QS.

Gallagher Hall

In 2019, Dean Unnava built on the MSBA’s success by rolling out an online MBA program, whose enrollment has swelled to 500 students. Ranked among the 20-best online MBA programs by Poets&Quants, the program scored high in students surveys on Career Impact (Promotions, Networking, Career Services, Career Goals) and Consulting Projects, Content Applicability, and Teamwork. This fall, the GSM will be launching 9-month in-person and 15-month online Master in Management programs. They are expected to attract 200 students initially, with neither requiring work experience. This marks the school’s fourth master’s program, which also includes Accounting a Master of Science in Business Analytics. Even more, the MiM program reflects Unnava’s philosophy to be flexible in response to changing market needs. In other words, use one degree program as a platform that can be expanded or customized.

“We looked around and found that the schools that went after these one-year specialty master’s programs often found it was very difficult to get 40 to 50 students to make economic sense,” says Unnava. “They are struggling trying to keep those programs on the books. We’re starting with a general management master’s in management as a nimble, responsive program so we have infinite possibilities. If AI becomes more important, I can add a concentration into the program. If there is demand for healthcare analytics, I can add a concentration of courses in that field. I can run eight programs in one program. That is an advantage especially when you need to respond quickly to the market. A few years ago, cybersecurity and blockchain were big for three years and then went away. I can put three classes in as electives and when the market cools off, I can put another set of classes into the elective offerings and do something else. That nimbleness is important to take advantage of market trends.”

That nimbleness – or delivery – is further reflected in Unnava’s biggest innovation to date: Stackable Certificates. Credit-bearing, the certificates require four graduate-level courses. Initially, the certificates will cover areas like Finance, Marketing, Leadership, Operations, Analytics, and Management. Don’t mistake these courses for glorified executive education; certificate students are graded just like everyone else. That’s why course credits can be applied towards an MBA degree. Unnava calls it “de-coupling” and sees these certificates as a way to appeal to MBA graduates too.

“The certificates allow us to give you what you need now in your career,” explains Unnava in a 2023 interview with P&Q. “If you got an MBA five years ago, you would have had little to no exposure to how artificial intelligence will impact your company. And if you earned your MBA ten years ago, a lot of what you learned is out of date. The world has changed so dramatically that you need to know the latest thinking in strategy or business analytics or digital transformation. This is a chance to refresh your education.”

Food & Agriculture Industry Immersion course. Courtesy UC Davis photographer 02.17.23

Perhaps the signature innovation at the GSM is the Industry Immersion Experience. Think of it as the equivalent to a school consulting project. The difference? Through partnerships with UC-Davis’ other schools, MBAs complete deep-dive immersions in what Dean Unnava calls the “hottest industries now and in the future.” That includes agriculture and food, biotechnology and healthcare, tech finance, and sustainable energy. Along with immersion coursework, MBAs enjoy executive coaching and mentoring, site visits, research projects, and even case competitions. The immersion also culminates with a team project with results presented to executives at GSM’s corporate partners.

Another surprising feature of the Industry Immersion Experience? MBAs aren’t just spending time around their business school peers. “They are sitting in classes with Ph.D. students and master’s students from food science and technology, molecular biology, nutrition, and so on,” adds Dean Unnava. “They tackle these problems being thrown at them by executives who come and tell them ‘this is an issue they are dealing with. How would you deal with it?’ Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the teams, the solutions often are richer than what would be possible with just MBA students.”

In some cases, these immersions act as an internship – or a try-out – for students. ““Over the last six years, we have seen about 30% of the MBA class go into careers in the industries represented by the immersions, setting us apart from other MBA programs that don’t have the university strength in these areas,” adds Dean Unnava.

That said, the Industry Immersion Experience isn’t the only time when GSM students get up close and personal with top employers. Aihe Chen, who graduated from the full-time program in 2022, lauded the IMPACT Project. “[It] integrates theories with real-world practice. We team up on a strategic consulting project for a client company and present compelling solutions to top executives. Through in-classroom live case studies and the hands-on 10-week capstone consulting project, [you] gain valuable insights and develop skills to solve key business issues.”

Full-Time students at Gallagher Hall, 2021.

If you are a GSM graduate, you’ll soon enjoy eos, a life-long learning platform. That’s one innovation that Dean H. Rao Unnava is busy implementing. Earlier this month. P&Q reached out to Dean Unnava on what MBAs will experience as GSM students. Here is what they can expect (plus news on a new undergraduate business program).

P&Q: What have been the most important new development in your MBA program over the past year? What type of impact will it have on current and future MBAs? 

Unnava: “One of the Graduate School of Management’s most significant initiatives is our lifelong learning platform known as eos. Over the past year, we dedicated substantial efforts to preparing for the launch of this platform. Derived from the Greek word for dawn, eos represents the beginning of a new era in professional development, an era in which our alumni and students will always be prepared for what is on the next professional horizon. To help them maintain a competitive edge in their careers, eos offers a range of opportunities and features in three primary areas—content, community and certifications.

The platform contains both original and curated content, including free access to our entire catalog of Online MBA course videos. Students and alumni can also stay on top of the latest developments in business with timely commentary by our faculty and industry experts as well as curated content from other high-quality business sources and invited content from alumni based on its relevance, impact and currency.

The platform includes several features to foster a vibrant community. Alumni and students can join affinity groups, comment on discussions and content, and see who else is in their geographic area. They can register for upcoming school-sponsored events or can host their own virtual or in-person event by posting it on the platform. A job board allows alumni to share opportunities with others.

To respond to the latest industry developments and exploit new professional opportunities, premium subscribers can access over 1,000 in-demand courses and certifications (e.g., AI, Machine Learning). The courses and certifications are carefully chosen to reflect the highest quality in the industry (through our online partner 2U/edX). Premium subscribers can also direct message other members, attend livestreamed events, and take virtual, synchronous courses offered by the Graduate School of Management

There are even more exciting features planned for future phases of eos, including a mobile app and an AI-driven personalized experience aimed at providing content recommendations base on an individual’s professional goals. The power of this platform lies in its ability to continuously modify its content and certifications to a community that is constantly engaged and equipped with the latest knowledge to aid their professional advancement.”

UC-Davis Graduate School of Management Dean H. Rao Unnava

P&Q: Give us your 30-second pitch for your full-time MBA. What makes you unique?

Unnava: “The UC Davis MBA offers students a close-knit community that inspires others to achieve, helps others to succeed, builds trust and challenges them as a collaborative leader. A highlight of our curriculum is distinctive Industry Immersions that allow UC Davis MBA students to take a deep dive into Food and Agriculture, Biotechnology, Sustainable Energy or Innovation Finance. These Immersions tap into UC Davis’ research expertise and corporate networks in these areas. Students say these are transformative experiences where they learn from top executives and collaborate in interdisciplinary teams on real solutions to challenges that are critical to the well-being of society.

Our MBA students receive customized guidance on how to maximize the curriculum and career development opportunities to reach their professional goals. Our Northern California location near the dynamic Sacramento region, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Napa/Sonoma, opens doors to internship and career opportunities in tech, healthcare, wine, CPG and more.

Our high-quality faculty, collaborative community and diverse students from California and worldwide who go on to rewarding careers is reflected in our recent upward moves in various MBA surveys, including among the top 20 full-time MBA program at public universities in Poets&Quants most recent ranking.”

P&Q: What is the most underrated aspect of your MBA program? How does it set you apart from other programs and enrich your MBA students’ experience?

Unnava: “One of the most underrated aspects of our MBA program is the limited visibility of our faculty’s intellectual contributions to both academia and the industry. One reason for this is possibly the small number of our research faculty (32 tenure-track faculty) whose volume of contributions is noticed less when compared to schools with larger numbers of faculty. However, for many years, UC Davis management school faculty were ranked in the top 10 in the world by The Economist. The per-capita research output of our faculty in Financial Times-50 journals is among the top in the world. So, our students are taught by very accomplished faculty with deep connections in both the industry and academia. Our students are at an advantage when it comes to learning from our accomplished and well-connected faculty, as the knowledge faculty generate and impart in today’s classrooms often finds its way into wider circulation in textbooks or case studies.

The high quality of a small number of faculty translates to a small and intimate program, development of carefully designed courses that are substantive, encourages collaboration across programs (e.g., joint academic activities between MSBA and MBA students), provides students with both theoretical and practical knowledge via experiential learning, and offers customized research and independent study courses that cater to student demand. Our curriculum and faculty are high quality but do not get noticed as much because of the small size of the program.

That said, we have developed close partnerships across campus to tap into UC Davis’ global research leadership in many areas. For example, our unique Industry Immersions are based on the strengths of the campus faculty overall. Students are exposed to high-quality curriculum, industry connections, and project experiences in Food and Agriculture, Biotechnology, Sustainable Energy, and Innovation Finance. Students pursuing this enrichment opportunity often team up in class with graduate students from the relevant disciplines and solve case study problems in multidisciplinary teams. This type of experience is made possible because of the high-quality research faculty and the collaborative environment that allows graduate students across UC Davis to take classes with our MBA students—and preparation for career opportunities in specific industries. We know of no other program that focuses on industries and cross-department curricula to prepare MBA students for the jobs of the future.

The consequences of a high-quality faculty are many. First, the curriculum is constantly updated and upgraded to cater to industry demands while keeping the academic integrity of the curriculum intact. Second, experiential opportunities created in the curriculum (e.g., projects, required consulting project, case competitions) prepares our graduates as ready to make an impact on day one of their job. Third, the solid curriculum provides placement opportunities in a range of industries, with high average starting salaries.”

UC Davis MBA students in Gallagher Hall

P&Q: In 2-3 sentences, tell us what your stackable credentials are. And more broadly, tell us how these credentials give UC Davis an advantage in the graduate business school marketplace?

Unnava: “We will begin offering our MBA program via stackable certificates in April. Our faculty designed each certificate to closely mirror an employee’s professional advancement at work. This design approach differs from offering a plethora of certificates and letting students take whatever certificates are available to amass credits needed to earn an MBA. Further, our students can take certificate courses online, in-person or hybrid format, making it easier for them to feel integrated with our community and other UC Davis MBA students.

The program vastly expands our student base, sets up important connections with corporate partners, generates opportunities such as projects, internships and career placements for our students and alumni. This continues to differentiate us as one of the most innovative business schools in the U.S. To reiterate, the certificates closely follow one’s professional advancement in management careers, which is different from a few other stackable certificate models which are designed with full-time MBA curriculum as the base model.”

P&Q: What does success look like in your MBA and graduate business school programs (i.e. what are you ultimately working towards)?

Unnava: “Success to us is the ability to graduate students who can participate in meaningful professional opportunities that are consistent with their values and life goals. The new generation of students seek collaboration (which is emphasized in our MBA experience via our Collaborative Leadership Program), meaningful contributions to business (we deliver this via our curriculum that integrates sustainability, corporate social responsibility and entrepreneurship), and to make an impact (we scale individual contributions via participation in alumni networks with similar value systems). We aim to make the two- or three-year experience in our MBA program to be the best years of our students’ lives because they lay the groundwork for lifelong success and achievement.”

P&Q: Can you tell us a little about your upcoming undergraduate business major?

Unnava: “We are excited to have received preliminary approval to launch an undergraduate major in business. The target start date is Fall 2025. The major proposal has received endorsement from the UC Davis Academic Senate and is in the final stages of formulating the laws and by-laws. The major is quite unique because it brings together three groups of expertise at UC Davis: the Economics Department, the Agricultural Resource Economics Department, and the Graduate School of Management. This powerful academic collaboration led to a curriculum that is rigorous and grounded in economics. Students will be required to take six courses in economics, and multiple electives in economics are part of their concentration. Initially, the major will be limited in size—250 students per year—with 175 students admitted as first-year undergraduates and 75 slots made available to transfers from community colleges and other UC Davis departments. This relatively small size of the major (leading to high selectivity), coupled with a focus on key strengths of UC Davis—in economics and business—is expected to result in an academic experience that is highly desirable to the industry.”

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