Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The MBA Marketing Machine

One way that B-schools are competing for the hearts and minds of prospective students is through diversity outreach. If grads are to compete in a global marketplace, they need to encounter it in the classroom, and that means recruiting students from a mix of industries, functions, countries, and genders—a mix that can be used as a selling point for the program. At Olin, Fox says his team might reach out to groups such as scientists and explain the merits of an MBA to those who want to go commercial with their inventions.

An Ethical Education
Since ethics is top of mind with the public, postcrisis, so it is with business schools. "One of the things we're selling more of is our track record of educating principled leaders," says Robert Carraway, associate dean for degree programs at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile). He points to a regular ethics roundtable discussion that Darden hosts and its new Center for Business & Society. Program features such as those are mentioned on the school's website, in recruiting materials, and at information sessions, Carraway says.

Selling the MBA in this day and age almost requires a redefinition of the purpose of the degree. Until recently, most graduates entered careers in finance or consulting. Today, many students are pursuing their degrees to run nonprofits or solve pressing social problems. Positioning the degree that way appeals to the famously idealistic Millennials, and to anyone willing to entertain alternative career paths in an era when traditional MBA jobs are in short supply. "As a business school, we have to help alter the public's view of business," says Mabley. One of the many ways business schools are doing just that is by showing how an MBA program trains students—from those with public policy aspirations to engineers inventing products—to run any kind of organization, says Carraway.

To prove how malleable the MBA degree can be, some schools are posting online videos featuring stories of alumni in nontraditional careers, while others put applicants in touch with such graduates directly. Still others are transforming their programs to help students who aspire to such careers. McCombs, for example, is building a health-care concentration and offers clean energy courses because those are among the state's growing industries, says Mabley.

Justifying the Cost
With tuition costs at top schools that are upwards of $80,000, and total costs that can be well north of $300,000 including two years of forgone salary, the case for the MBA's return on investment is getting tougher to make. More than ever before, program representatives are fielding tough questions on ROI at information sessions and one-on-one applicant meetings, and addressing price sensitivity isn't easy, says Lynda Oliver, assistant dean of marketing and communications at the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business (Cox Full-Time MBA Profile). Oliver admits that her job is more difficult because she must explain why it's worth it to invest in her school's more expensive program over more affordable, lesser-known options that were never considered competition before.

The Foster School, says Poston, is blunt with candidates: "If they seem to want a career on Wall Street, we tell them to apply to New York University's Stern School of Business (Stern Full-Time MBA Profile) or Columbia Business School (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile)." The truth is the best marketing tool, he adds. "This generation can see hype from a mile away," says Poston. "You have to cut through that and be straight with people."

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