Not only is the management of product and people related to supply and demand part of the curriculum at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College, it’s also a real issue with which Walton College leaders are struggling.
However, it’s a struggle they welcome.
The Executive MBA program at Walton College has grown from about 20 students in 1999 to 68 accepted students for the 2013-2014 class and around 40 students on a waiting list.
“It has been growing steadily over the past few years,” Dr. Vikas Anand, associate professor and director of the MBA program at Walton College, said in what could be labeled an understatement.
Students in the newest class work in a wide variety of backgrounds. Sectors represented are retail, technology, consumer packaged goods vendors, engineering, marketing, manufacturing, computer hardware and software, higher education, logistics/transportation, law, banking, military and medical.
Anand also said the class diversity has changed, with 38 women in the 2013-2014 class – a record class number for the program.
The two-year, 38-hour program consists of online and at-home study, with students attending class one Saturday per month for two years. Classes in the program include “Managing Ideas, Products and Services,” “Economics of Management and Strategy,” “Retail Strategy and Processes,” and “Supply Chain Management.”
It’s the growing supply of individuals seeking matriculation through the program that Anand and others at Walton College are now tasked to manage.
Anand says the program is “not an overnight success.” He emphasizes that interest is the result of many factors, including the university’s willingness to think beyond traditional academia and merge the needs of the private sector with the advantages of technology.
A factor leading to increased interest has been a move to make the course more accessible to those with jobs and who do not live in Northwest Arkansas. Part of that was a willingness to waive the GMAT (graduate management admission test) requirement by “giving weight to work experience,” Anand said.
“When you think about it, why should someone who is 40 or 45 years old and have run a business for several years” not be given credit for the experience, Anand asked.
The 2013-2014 class has 38 students with between 10 and 25 years of work experience, and only 28 with less than five years of work experience.
“I found that they are probably the most motivated students that we have,” Anand, who has been with the program since inception, said of those with extensive work experience. “When you think about it, someone who is coming in, who is coming back, at that age is motivated.”
Anand said the older graduates also are “some of our strongest supporters after they have graduated. ... Their word of mouth about us is fantastic.”
Yet another factor, according to Anand, is that the university has actively pitched the program in large regional cities only a few hours drive from Northwest Arkansas. Dallas, Kansas City and Little Rock are home to some of the students in the newest class. Anand also said the class has become a “recruiting tool” for some of the retail-sector vendor companies in Northwest Arkansas.
“A large number of people who come to Northwest Arkansas are here just a few years to work for a vendor. ... What we find is that they use that time to complete (the executive MBA). I know at least two or three companies who use that as a recruiting tool to get them to come here,” Anand said.
Somewhat of a surprise in recent years to Anand is the number of physicians and pharmacists who enter the program. Several doctors from the Little Rock area have completed or are in the program because they see how changes from the federal healthcare law may require them to “learn more about the finances of their business,” Anand said.
Possibly the most important factor is tuition. Tuition for the Executive MBA program is about $35,000, although it could rise closer to $40,000 for the 2014-2015 class. Even with the higher tuition, the program is less expensive than other large university programs. Following are tuition levels for similar programs around the country:
• University of Texas: $89,250
• University of Texas-Dallas: $82,000
• University of Pennsylvania (Wharton College): $171,360
• University of Oklahoma: $77,400
• Arizona State University: $79,600
• Auburn University: $55,480
• Texas Christian University: $89,500
Anand admitted that it “is tempting to push it (tuition) higher when there is so much demand,” but said Walton College officials are mindful of what the cost means to companies and individuals. He said about 40% of students receive tuition reimbursement from their employer, with the reimbursement ranging from 25% to 100% of all costs.
TECHNOLOGY, CLASS EXPANSION
With expectations for continued demand, Anand said, Walton College officials are planning to expand the program to two sections in 2014-2015. Technology, which has helped foster program growth, will help Walton College administer a second section without stressing the system and jeopardizing quality, Anand said.
“Technology to me is a huge enabler,” he said.
The technology is “centered around the delivery of education,” Anand said, with Walton College faculty developing over the years several options for that delivery. One option allows outside experts to interact with the class from a remote location. All class lectures are recorded, which allows students to merely listen to a lecture and then watch it again to take notes – or vice versa.
Another option is access to a video lecture in which students watch the lecture before attending class.
“This allows students to interact more when they come together,” Anand said. “We’ve already gone to that format, so it’s really about, ‘How do we go beyond that? How do we enhance that impact?’”
Going beyond to enhance an impact may be a journey without books.
“In a few years, we won’t be looking at textbooks,” Anand said of moving to a more digital classroom. “I see this as a huge opportunity.”
But technology, Anand stressed at the end of his praise for its benefits, is not a substitute for human interaction.
He said a key value of the MBA program is that “it builds networks through an interactive format for learning” in which faculty and students gather in or out of the classroom and “engage in these accidental conversations” that foster a level of learning outside even the best-planned curriculum.
The struggle continues to be the balance between quality education, convenience and the ever-changing needs of the private sector.
“We have to continue to increase the flexibility for our students without compromising the quality of the education,” Anand said.