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"Freshers'" MBA Programs May Give Business Schools A Hangover

Business schools are waiving admissions requirements and "freshers" with no experience are gaining MBA degrees. But they will lack crucial peer-to-peer learning.

It wasn’t the usual collection of high-flying business leaders entering the MBA fray this year. On campus you will find a twenty-something with no work experience, tearing into management education just months after finishing a BA.

There are a bevy of business schools admitting even more green students. MBA programs are no longer reserved for the hard-nosed industry insider. For some the strategy has paid off. Applications to full-time programs have slumped in recent years but that drop has levelled out to about 1 per cent.

It could also reshape the MBA as we know it. While many schools require five-plus years of work experience, many also say character is important. Increasingly, “potential” and “fit” seal the deal for many business school hopefuls.

And rafts of those schools are waiving some of their admissions criteria, which are common for MSc programs, but for the MBA, students cite learning from their peers as a crucial piece of the education puzzle.

Competition could hot up, potentially seeing more undergraduates steal places from under workers’ noses. Prospective MBA candidates will have noticed that people younger than 24 are the fastest-growing Graduate Management Admission Test takers, the standard entry for most schools.

In 2010, nearly 40 per cent of applicants to full-time MBA programs had less than three years of work experience.

But some recruitment managers at leading schools are wary. An influx of lesser experienced MBAs could devalue the achievement of program completion. The MBA degree is now a pre-requisite for many top jobs and inexperienced graduates have uncertain prospects of senior-level employment.

“The ‘freshers' MBA’: the trouble they are causing for UK admissions. There are a few UK institutions that offer an MBA without work experience – do they have the ethos of an MBA or [are they] jumping on a gravy train?” said one business school professor, who declined to be named.  

It may look like a gamble but a tranche of UK MBA programs are following suit – including Birmingham City's MBA, Cardiff Business School’s MBA and the University of Aberdeen’s MBA, to name but a few.

Candidates lacking experience would be better off with an MSc, says Phil Carter, Head of MBA Marketing and Recruitment at Imperial College Business School. “MBA programs without work experience risk being far too general. In the UK, just having an MBA doesn’t mean you’ll work in senior roles – it’s about the experience you bring to it,” he told BusinessBecause.

It is happening on both sides of the pond. At the Sellinger School of Business and Management in Maryland, U.S, a surge of pre-experience candidates encouraged them to launch a new Emerging Leaders MBA, the first cohort of which averaged 24 years of age.

Top schools are even accepting students while they're still in undergraduate studies, admitting them after a set period of work experience. Harvard Business School offers a 2+2 program, which guarantees accepted undergraduates a spot in a future class if they get two years of approved work experience. In its inaugural year, HBS received 630 applications for the class of 2013.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business, regarded as having one of the United States’ best MBA programs, has a similar deferred program. Prospective MBAs can apply for admission while in their senior year of college and can choose their own start date, between one to three years after they graduate.

This pre-experience trend is most notable in India, where gaining an MBA degree from one of their 3000 or so business schools has become common. But changes are coming to the fore, agrees VK Menon, Senior Director of Careers and Admissions at the Indian School of Business.

“The number of MBA graduates produced in India is amongst the highest in the world… they are making significant changes in their strategies. Earlier, while most business schools admitted freshers,  today many are admitting students with prior experience,” he says.

But not everyone is convinced. Phil from Imperial, which has one of the UK’s best MBA rankings, agrees that relaxed admissions can devalue MBA degrees, “especially if they are not clearly labelled as such. We’ve even found that people who have taken a pre-experience MBA will come back and apply to do an Imperial MBA six years later”.

“An MBA is most useful when you have some real world experience. It's better for the school, it's better for your classmates, and it's better for you,” says Bhavik Trivedi, Managing Partner of Critical Square, an MBA admissions services company.

Still, pre-experience programs have planted their flag all over the world. They could still make life difficult for MBA students. Some students place a huge emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. Phil tells Imperial candidates they will gain 50 per cent of their new knowledge from the faculty and 50 per cent from fellow classmates.

“The more diverse experience students have, the richer the learning experience it is for all,” he says. “Students with experience bring practical problem-solving to the classroom, and they can learn from each other how a theory might apply across many industries.”

Imperial’s minimum requirement is three years’ work experience, for the MBA. But many have seven or eight years of experience, says Phil. Students lacking this are "unable to contribute to class in the same way".

“An MBA is not a way to learn how to be an accountant, or a marketer, or any functional discipline, but instead a way to learn what you need of those roles, giving you a helicopter view to lead an organisation or cross-functional team,” he says.

“If a student has no experience and enters into a graduate level job after an MBA, it might be many years before they get to apply their learning in practice.”

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