Too Long Or Too Short: What Is The Right Length For A Full-Time MBA Program?

Apr 15 2014, 6:35am CDT | by

( The business school arena has long been the battleground for two intractable camps – those who believe that two years is the optimal length for a full-time MBA program and those who argue that it should be one year. The advocates of the former maintain the longer time is essential to cover all the necessary material and to provide students with valuable summer internships (a likely route to an attractive job offer), while their opponents offer the incentive of getting participants back into the workplace as fast as possible. And, despite the fact that the academic mind is supposed to be an ever-open one, the two sides seem about as likely to see each other’s point of view as the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

The latest data released by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) now suggests that the proponents of the two-year program might be on the run. In 2013 the number of GMAT test takers who opted for the two year option dropped like the proverbial stone – from nearly 90,000 in 2012 to just under 70,000, a fall of over 21% year on year and a decrease of nearly 30% since the two year program’s most popular year of 2009. And the defections are most noticeable among prospective students from the US, where the decline in interest since 2012 was over 24%.

Few admissions directors at the top U.S. schools will be losing sleep over this. Harvard Business School, for example, a dedicated adherent to the two-year approach, was among a number of top MBA programs that saw applications rise in 2013. And while Northwestern’s Kellogg reported a 9% increase in applications to the two-year MBA last year, the school is reducing the size of class intake from 650 to around 530, while strengthening its one-year program which began in 1964 for those who already have an undergraduate business education.

But elsewhere, nights are likely to be much more disturbed. As a result a number of high profile schools such as Cornell’s Johnson School, Emory’s Goizueta and USC Marshall are also offering an accelerated one year program to scoop up those worried about staying out of the real world of work any longer than necessary.

For Kathleen Dolan, MBA Director at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School, the case for offering a one-year MBA program is compelling. “A one-year MBA program makes sense for U.S. students more than ever – with volatile markets and an accelerated pace of change across industries, the time out to pursue a shorter degree decreases risk while maintaining all the benefits of the more traditional degree model.”

Dolan points out that one-year programs are consistently ranked among the top 20 in the world, holding their own if not beating two year programs.  Why?  ”Well, a one year program is all MBA”, she explains, “with all the core classes and electives of many longer models in a shorter amount of time.  So there is less time for introspection or personal development and more skill building around deadline-driven decision-making models, effectiveness versus efficiency applications and a ‘get the job done’ attitude.  While a two-year program touts an MBA candidates, time for growth and reflection, a one year model only has time for professional development for a fast-paced world.”

But should one or two years be the only options? Couldn’t there be a reasonable compromise somewhere in the middle?

Although at least two U.S. schools – Duke Fuqua and Michigan Ross -now have ‘mid-ground’ programs lasting 16 months, the most pioneering work in the field seems to be happening in Europe, the traditional home of the one-year MBA. The UK’s London Business School and Spain’s ESADE both offers no less than three options, allowing students to exit anywhere between 12 and 21 months.

However, one of the leading schools in continental Europe itself, France’s HEC Paris, has firmly nailed its colours to a 16-month program. And that’s not just the result of an insulated academic opinion, but also of the input of strategy consultancy (and major recruiter of MBAs), Bain & Co, which helped the school to revamp its MBA offering in 2012. “The 16-month duration gives us the time we need to offer everyone in-company experience and the opportunity to specialise,” says Bernard Garrette, the associate dean at HEC Paris who brought the consultancy into the school. “Bain told us that we should be better leveraging this and showing that the program is the best of both worlds – an MBA program long enough to help someone switch careers and specialise, yet short enough to cost less than a two year option.”

Given the time, effort and resources that go into the creation of a top MBA program and the increasingly competitive nature of the business school landscape, it’s unlikely that we’ll see many, if any key players capitulating and admitting that one of their peers has been right all along as to the right length of an MBA program. But with the rise of other credible options such as the range of specialist and generalist Masters in Management programs, one thing appears to be certain, the continuing health of the MBA is likely to depend on innovation, invention and, above all, flexible and imaginative thinking as to how to offer students the very best return on a substantial investment.


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