In the Great Debate on how to help people re-enter the workforce, the topic of education comes up a lot. And in the buffet of options, an advanced degree is the holy grail: a great way to re-credential yourself and get access to valuable networks and job interviews, whether you’ve taken time off to raise kids or struggled with unemployment.
“Going back to school is a very effective strategy for returning to work,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, who co-founded iRelaunch in 2007 to help people restart their careers after taking time off. “Sure, you might be at a disadvantage compared with people who worked all the way through and have the same degree. But it demonstrates to an employer that you’re updating your skills and you’re motivated—that’s powerful.”
What if I—a new mother with an irrational fear of spreadsheets and a hair-brained business idea—could get an MBA?
Now comes the hard part. Take a very practical degree like the MBA, which, along with an academic skill set, gives you an even more valuable network plus access to companies and real-life work experience. All that sounds peachy until you factor in the cost, which, on average, is around $80,000 for two years, and upwards of $100,000 for an elite school. What may be even more of a hurdle than the whopping price tag is the time: two years. That’s a serious opportunity cost.
So what if you could get the same degree, but faster?
Moreover, what if I—a freelance writer and new mother with an irrational fear of spreadsheets and a hair-brained business idea—could get an MBA?
While there are already plenty of fast-track options, like a company-sponsored Executive MBA or an overseas program, neither of those is a silver bullet for people who have been out of the work force. And an online degree won’t provide the same networking advantages or access to career fairs and interviews. For that, you need a brick and mortar institution with people in it.
For returning students, one-year programs can make for a more comfortable peer group than, say, a bunch of beer-pong-playing, Instagram-happy 26-year-olds.
Enter the one-year MBA. Most universities have been slow to recognize the value of the degree, but a handful of business schools, like Olin at Babson and Kellogg at Northwestern, are ahead of the pack. Their one-year programs don’t halve the price tag, since they pack in an extra intensive summer of coursework (for instance, Babson’s one-year program costs $72,000 in tuition as opposed to $100,000 for its traditional MBA)—but they do take a lot less time.
One-year students also tend to be older, with significant career experience. And for people afflicted with The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick syndrome—returning to the workforce after a break (though not, as in Alicia’s case, after their prostitute-loving politico husbands are packed off to jail)—that can make for a more comfortable peer group than, say, a bunch of beer-pong-playing, Instagram-happy 26-year-olds.
The problem is, while these programs are excellent at helping people with a business background accelerate their careers, they’re not really designed to restart careers. For one thing, anyone applying needs to be an Excel whiz.
“At a minimum, you need a knowledge of finance, accounting, statistics and economics,” says Olivia Kelley, the Senior Assistant Director for Babson’s MBA programs. Because the accelerated program covers core curriculum classes in three months instead of nine for the traditional MBA, “even if you have the foundation in business, if you’ve taken a break it’s probably going to be too fast and furious to remember it all here.”
One-year grads can do a summer internship after they graduate, which can turn right into a job.
— Olivia Kelley, MBA program director at Babson College
So for people who have a business background but are rusty after taking time off—to, say, stay at home with their kids or trek the Himalayas—it’s a good idea to take refresher courses at a university extension program or community college before applying for the one-year program.
Another difference between the one- and two-year programs is that there is no summer internship for the shorter MBA, but plenty of real-life work experience is still baked into the degree. At Babson, for instance, their Management Consulting Field Experience programs include consulting for companies (say, developing a strategic initiative for the St. Petersburg Ballet) or pitching an organization a consulting project you designed yourself.
“And one-year grads can do a summer internship after they graduate which can turn right into a job,” says Kelley. “If the company knows you, it’s much more likely you’ll get hired.”
This is all great news, especially if you were a crackerjack stock analyst now looking to re-enter the job market. But is it possible to find an accelerated MBA program that could work for someone who quotes poetry, not stock prices?
Stanford’s one-year business degree, the MSx Program, does accept a lot of applicants who don’t have traditional business backgrounds. Graduates receive an MS in Management (the university only grants an MBA for two years of coursework), but at least eight years of work experience, including strong leadership roles, is required to apply. Almost half the students already hold advanced degrees.
There’s been a sea change in how universities are viewing alumni who are looking to return to the workforce. Which could mean a push for more flexible degrees.
And since it’s for professionals looking to reach senior management positions, most applicants are in the workforce. “We’ve seen people who have taken one year off, but not many who have taken multiple years off,” says Mike Hochleutner, the program’s director. While it wouldn’t be impossible to get in after taking a long career break, you would’ve had to kill it in your job before you left.
When I talked to Kelley about whether Babson’s one-year program could be a fit for people who didn’t have an undergrad business background, she put it this way, “Yes and no. I have a current one-year who was a history major, but she spent seven years at Credit Suisse. If you don’t have the undergrad background, you have to have worked in a high quantitative capacity.”
Which all goes to say, my mompreneur dream to produce and market a gizmo that would instantly dry and style hair will probably have to sit on the shelf a bit longer. (Can someone please invent that?)
But the good news is, there’s been a sea change in how universities are viewing alumni, especially women, who have taken time off and are now looking to return to work. Which could mean a push for more flexible degrees.
“Colleges and universities traditionally haven’t done a lot of programming for their alumni who have chosen to take career breaks,” says Cohen. But since 2008, she’s noticed a lot more interest from schools in programs to help people re-enter the workforce. More and more business schools are offering quick tune-ups, too, like Stanford’s certificate programs or Harvard’s weeklong program for professional women, A New Path.
And as the costs of two-year programs become more prohibitive, universities may catch onto the appeal of one-year programs, even for people who aren’t coming from traditional business backgrounds.
So maybe, if I get my act together, my magic hair wand will have its day after all.
Why you should care
Because not everyone who wants an MBA has two years and $100K to spend.