They don’t care much about rankings at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. But they do care about happiness.
Of course, doing well in the rankings is generally a cause for happiness — among the faculty and staff as well as the students, if for no other reason than the prestige it confers. That’s certainly been the situation at Rice Jones, where steady improvement in the rankings has accompanied consistently excellent instruction and outcomes.
“Like I tell the students, I’d rather go up than down,” says George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs for a school that has climbed into or near the top 25 in most major rankings, including Poets&Quants’. “We personally, inside the school, don’t talk about the rankings a ton, but those people we care most about care greatly about the rankings, being our students, alumni, and prospects. So it’s certainly great to see.”
But, he adds, greater to see has been the overall high happiness quotient at Rice Jones.
“That is something that I was struck at,” says Andrews, who joined Rice University in the fall fo 2014. “I was at the University of Chicago for 10 years before coming here. One of the things I immediately was struck by was how happy the students were here. What I’ve realized is, the ratio of students to faculty and staff is pretty good. It’s a small program, and the intimacy and the attention that we’re able to show the students really plays out in their satisfaction level. I’m down there having breakfast with them — whether they like it or not, and lunch — and they get a lot of dean interactions and a lot of faculty interactions, things that at a bigger institution you really just can’t duplicate. I think that they really like that.”
THE IDEAL APPLICANT
So what does the ideal applicant to the MBA program look like? Who should apply to Rice?
“Because we’ve got four different ways to get the MBA, it kind of depends on what the applicant is looking for,” Andrews says, citing the full-time, professional, executive, and hybrid online MBA programs. “But I think most people are thinking about the full time, so I’ll answer it in that light. What we talk about is, we try to find people who want to make a disproportionate impact in society, meaning that we’re really not looking for somebody who wants to just go to Wall Street and make a million dollars, although you could certainly give back and become quite helpful with the money that you can make. We just want somebody who realizes that this degree, they’re going to be able to put it to use. And it could be they want to be the best Boy Scout leader in the world, they want to go to a not-for-profit and change the world, but what we look for is that they really have proven in their past that they like to make an impact in whatever they’re doing. And we want to feel like they’re going to continue to do that.
“I think the people who are here certainly have that vibe. The grades are important, yes, but at the end of the day I’m here to learn as much as I can, to soak up as much as I can, and to take this back and kind of make an impact wherever I go.
“It’s a great education, a great educational experience, and then when they become alumni we see the alumni satisfaction is still quite high as well.”
At Rice, MBA students — who currently number around 120, the smallest class size among the top 25 schools, though plans are afoot to ramp that up to 180 in the next two years — have the ear of the dean. Andrews meets with the student government on a weekly basis, and he also does quarterly town halls. “I think the students really appreciate the fact that we listen and also are able to make changes within their time here,” he says. “As you know, often at these institutions there’s a long window that change usually happens through because you have to get things approved through many authorities, the faculty and the governments of the organization. But we’re able to pivot pretty quickly, and I think students love that because they’ll give us some feedback and they don’t have to wait to learn that it was changed. They can see some things happening.”
With so much change and so much capacity for change, the program is imbued with youthful energy. Andrews says if the Rice Jones MBA were an industry, it would be tech — where, not incidentally, about 17% of the latest graduating class reported finding work last year.
“If we were to put the school as an industry or a business, it feels much more like a tech type business, where we innovate and change pretty frequently, as opposed to other institutions that feel much more stodgy — kind of like, ‘We’re the industry leaders and we don’t need to change because we’re positioned where we want to be.’ Without attributing to any particular dean, I have been told in the past, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Things are going well.’ There’s more risk to making change, often, at these bigger institutions than there is possible reward.
“But I think here, it feels young, because it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, what should we try? Let’s try something. Let’s engage the students. What do you think about this? Let’s do it.’ And if it doesn’t work, we pivot.”
BEYOND THE NEXT JOB
So — what’s been working? And where can students pivot? What does two years in the full-time MBA program at Rice Jones look like?
“One of the things that students love about our program is how flexible it is on what they can learn,” Andrews says. “So, the first year of the program are the core classes. You’ve got your finance and accounting and marketing — they get all those things in, because it helps them, a) going into their internship, and b) see what they might have natural interests in.
“But after that, when they come back, they’re able to pivot. We have over 150 electives available for them. So they like it because they can dig in and double down on whatever they want to learn — meaning if they say, ‘Gosh, finance. Love it,’ OK. Now let’s talk about what kind of financial field: running one of the financial instruments, or corporate finance? Same thing with the marketing group. We have so many electives.
“And the other thing we make sure we do is really inculcate the students with the realization that they shouldn’t just think about the next job. You could take a ton of finance classes because you want to get a job in finance, but you need to realize that, over time, what’s going to pay you back as well are the organizational behavior classes, the leadership classes, the negotiation classes. So we make sure that they’re very thoughtful about that as well. Invest in your future beyond just the next job!”
Among a sea of electives is a huge school of experiential offerings. Rice Jones, Andrews says, has “as much experiential learning as any other program.” The reason: faculty and students are encouraged to think about how real-world companies, problems, or data can be incorporated into the classroom.
“We want students to learn by working on something that they can see how it’s applied in the real world,” Andrews says. “Regressions class is just one example. We ask the students to actually bring in data from companies they’ve worked at, anything that they have. This works particularly well in the professional and the executive programs, where they’re currently working. But even in our full-time classes, we bring in data sets that we’ve got that are from real companies that the faculty are consulting with, to work on those problems and opportunities.”
Rice also has key experiential courses, highlighted by their capstone class, the culmination of all MBA classes. “They’re working with real companies,” Andrews says. “Most often they’re actually not-for-profits, because these are really big, sticky issues that these firms are having, and they get to go in and work on those issues — whether it’s, ‘We want to go to Colombia and start a business there,’ or ‘We want to have a new branch in another part of the country.’ But they’re these big, sticky things that they can work on.”
GATEWAY TO THE WORLD
Rice University is located in Houston, one of Texas’ most vibrant cities and a food and entertainment hub — a great place, by any measure, to live and study. But full-time MBA students at the Jones School also have access to the world in the form of dozens of study-abroad opportunities. Besides Harvard Business School and a few others, Rice Jones is the only top B-school that requires every student to travel and study abroad — mandatory GFEs, or Global Field Experiences.
“We have a ton of study-abroad opportunities,” Andrews says, citing upcoming trips to Mexico City, Mexico, and São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “We’re kind of going all over the place,” he adds, saying there is a focus on staying in the Central time zone, meaning Latin America gets special attention.
“We were going to China and India and a lot of places, but I’ll tell you what we’ve found is, staying in the same time zone is incredibly helpful,” Andrews says. “So we actually do do a lot of work in Latin America.”
Rice’s GFEs are not junkets. There’s lots of work involved.
“The reason we do it, our global field experiences, they’re not just going and kind of hanging out in the country. We partner with businesses,” Andrews says. “So while they’re there, they’re working with the companies and their employees to solve real problems. We have a lot of alumni in those countries, so we’re able to get some really interesting opportunities. So we’re not purposely focused on Latin America, but I will say we’ve found that it works really well, that keeping in that same time zone has helped the students a lot.”
A VIRTUOUS CYCLE MARKET
For many applicants to business school, the bottom line is the bottom line. What do outcomes look like at Rice Jones? Well, they are part of the reason the school is doing so well in the rankings. In the last five years, the average base pay (salary plus bonus) has gone up 11%, to $129,950. But even that solid figure may be undervaluing the school’s grads, Andrews says.
“I just had a meeting with our career office talking about something similar,” he says. “It’s funny, we don’t how much to think about or focus on the salaries. Obviously we are glad it’s going up. What we think is happening is, our students are placing more and more outside of Houston in areas that have higher starting salaries, so one of the things we bemoan is that because the cost of living here’s been so affordable, that for comparable positions in consulting you’ll get paid less in Houston even though the earning power of what you make will be more than what you would get in New York. So the starting salaries of these people starting in New York look great, but what it doesn’t take into consideration is that their earning power is far less.
“But our students are placing in some other countries, and we’re getting better firms, if you want to put it that way, who pay more, coming to campus than ever before. So it’s kind of a virtuous cycle market. I guess, going back to the rankings, even though we don’t talk about it a ton, it’s nice because firms start to hear about us, so companies are coming now that did not use to come before — a lot more tech coming our way, a lot of the bigger consulting firms, and they pay more and we’re seeing those salaries starting to creep up.”
THE FUTURE: TIME TO GROW
What do the next two or three years look like at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business? There won’t be any “staying the course,” except in the general sense of continued success, Andrews says. Change is the only constant.
“Our commitment to the global field experiences will only continue, but I think that we’re still kind of deciding how to continue to grow that. You know, we did launch our online MBA program, MBA@Rice, and so we’re seeing demand from across the world now, and deciding how to proceed. What we want for that market is two things: One, we want to maintain the quality. So we are one of the few online programs that we know of that require the GMAT, and there’s an average score we try to maintain that is as close to our program and other programs. Secondly, we want to have the intimate nature of our experience be the same for the online, so every cohort is only 15 people in the online space. We can obviously have multiple cohorts, but I think we’re just trying to decide how big do we want to let that get. And then, the other thing, honestly, is how big can we get and still be a small and intimate @Rice in general.
“Our full-time program is only 120 students. It’s tight, it’s intimate, they love it. But if we were at 180, we’d still be one of the smaller programs and could probably maintain that tight, intimate nature. So I think there’s an opportunity to grow. One of the things the dean (Peter Rodriguez) is passionate about is making the biggest impact we can make in the city, in the region, and ultimately in the country. Houston, we believe, deserves a really top-tier ranked program. So we can make a bigger impact if we grow just a little bit. So growth for impact is something we think about. The online space is one of those, and then the opportunity to probably grow some of our other programs will be in place at some point, as well.”
Rice Jones will likely have 180 students in its full-time MBA by 2021, Andrews says.
“A lot of what I’ve been doing is really working behind the scenes on making sure that we have the processes and people in place,” he says. “So when we step on the gas, the school’s ready to go. We’re been a bit a sleepy, a little school, a top 30 perennial, OK? But Peter came in and they brought me over and one of the things we discussed was how we can ratchet up our game. And a lot of it had to do with people who were here previously. It was a fun place to be, everyone kind of kept all of their information in their head, nothing was documented. So when somebody would walk out the door, all of that information went with them. So what we’ve really been spending the last couple of years on is documenting, oddly enough, jobs, processes, and graduation.
“How does that work, right? Getting it on paper, so that when we grow we can grow, and all of those processes are in place. So I say two years because in this next year we are really getting all of this finalized to where we can have the infrastructure in place to grow and not worry about something falling apart during that process.”