W. P. Carey Dean Amy Hillman on keeping the MBA relevant

In 2016, the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University unveiled a transformed Full-time MBA program. New curricular enhancements opened up more distinct areas of focus for students, which in turn led to engagement with more companies in more industries and better employment outcomes. In its first year, the Forward Focus MBA increased enrollment by more than 25%, while also becoming one of the most selective MBA programs in the world, admitting only 14% of applicants.

Three years and more than 300 new graduates into the evolution of the school’s Full-time MBA program, W. P. Carey School of Business Dean Amy Hillman discusses what the school has learned, how to remain competitive in a crowded MBA environment, and what’s next for the program and the school.

Ideas Unlimited: The W. P. Carey School made headlines when it reengineered its MBA a few years ago. What were some of the reasons you made that change, and why was that the right time to take a fresh approach?

Amy Hillman: Certainly since Mr. Carey's initial $50 million gift to us in 2003, the W. P. Carey School has established an identity for doing things differently. We were an early adopter of online programs, and we’ve never shied away from launching new degrees where we saw a need, such as launching a master’s in business analytics in 2012, ahead of most other schools. We also feel like the concrete is never dry on our programs, so we constantly take a look at our curriculum and the value it offers students and employers. The only way our degrees stay relevant is if we keep them relevant.

In terms of our Full-time MBA, we felt like it had reached an inflection point mid-decade. We had come out of the recession and had a really good product, but we hadn’t truly moved it forward in a while. So we examined what the marketplace was telling us, both in the business school landscape and among recruiters interested in hiring our students. The other huge factor was our students themselves: How were they progressing in their careers two, five, and 10 years after graduation? How could we better help them get the offers they want right away and help them keep pace as their careers advanced? And how had student expectations of MBA programs changed over the years?

I mentioned the gift from Mr. Carey earlier — we recently received another $25 million investment from the W. P. Carey Foundation, the bulk of which will help us develop best-in-class career services for all of our students, and a big reason we were able to secure this second gift is the success we’ve had over the years, but particularly with our recent focus on the Full-time MBA.

Ideas Unlimited: You talked about market factors playing a role. What are some of the specific changes you’ve made to the program?

Amy Hillman: More than any one thing we’ve done, it’s been about making sure all the elements in the curriculum can work together, and then beyond that, create pathways for each one of our students to explore how they can leverage our resources to be as successful as they can be. We do have some classes and programming that didn’t exist here until a few years ago, though.

Our Interdisciplinary Applied Learning Labs class really embodies one of the aspects of ASU that a lot of other universities are starting to replicate. Since he arrived here almost 20 years ago, ASU President Michael Crow has always pushed schools to break down the silos to find better solutions, to be more reflective of how the world itself works. This class pairs our MBA students with students from other master’s programs at ASU to work with an external stakeholder on an active business problem they’re facing. And this idea spawned from us realizing that we’re not really preparing students to be great leaders if they’re just marketing experts talking to the people in finance. They need to be business leaders talking to engineers and architects and the general counsel. So it’s been a revelation for us and our students.

Ideas Unlimited: So the upshot is that they learn how to work across teams and functions?

Amy Hillman: Right, but not in the lip service way that’s become all too common in MBA programs. There’s a lot riding on these projects. For example, the City of Tempe came to us with a need to develop a carbon-neutral footprint by 2025. Those are serious stakes! And that became a project for our MBA students and other students across campus. But the interface wouldn’t have been there at all if we hadn’t taken this fresh look at our curriculum and said, “It’s on us to better prepare students for ambiguity and change.” So it’s not just learning how to work across MBA teams; it’s actually working across interdisciplinary teams against specific deadlines targeting specific demands. That’s entirely different than reading cases.

Another key element of our curriculum is our Executive Connections program, which has grown from about 20 senior executive mentors when we launched it to more than 60 today. Each Full-time MBA student is paired with one of our in-residence executives, who serves as a coach for that student’s discipline and can bring an experienced perspective to supply chain or consulting or finance. Also, to have that personal connection with someone who’s seen how business has changed and what’s required to stay relevant for decades is invaluable. That kind of one-to-one mentorship, along with the much broader network of executives students can access through that program, is a distinction for us.

What we think makes us unique in this respect — and again, it’s just emblematic of why ASU continues to be named the most innovative school in the country by U.S. News & World Report — is how customizable we’ve made the Forward Focus MBA.

Ideas Unlimited: What about the industry-specific changes you made to your curriculum, to address feedback from recruiters?

Amy Hillman: First, I’d argue that the learning labs and Executive Connections both get to the heart of consistent feedback from recruiters and corporations, and that’s preparing students to be better leaders and communicators, developing their empathy and introspection and decision-making. But yes, of course, there have been a lot of enhancements to what students learn about the key disciplines and how they can apply it in internships and in their careers.

Most MBA programs have some level of concentration they offer. What we think makes us unique in this respect — and again, it’s just emblematic of why ASU continues to be named the most innovative school in the country by U.S. News & World Report — is how customizable we’ve made the Forward Focus MBA. Our core curriculum is more rigorous now than it was five years ago, but we’ve also made it more flexible. Seven industry-specific concentrations, six specializations on top of that to target career paths within those broader fields, and really ambitious students can even get a concurrent degree — we offer seven of those.

On the surface, that’s 20 different curricular MBA experiences, but it goes much deeper than that: If you want to be a data-focused marketing leader, you can earn a marketing concentration with our master of business analytics. Then you can take it another layer deeper than that and add a specialization in services. We like to say W. P. Carey is where business is personal, and we’re able to dedicate a lot of resources to this effort, from faculty to executive coaches to career services., based on our breadth as one of the largest public research universities in the world.

At the end of the day, this MBA is really a response to what business is going to need moving forward: Versatile leaders who can speak the language of all of these fields, and who aren’t paralyzed by confronting change, because they’ve been trained to embrace it.

Ideas Unlimited: What role will the latest gift from the W. P. Carey Foundation play in the development of the program?

Amy Hillman: We have been very fortunate to enjoy a wonderful relationship with Bill Carey’s foundation over the years. We’re humbled that they support the work we’ve done with the first $50 million they invested in us, which came at a time when ASU wasn’t making the global strides it is today. But the foundation has seen our growth in size and in reputation and they know how hard it is for schools to stay competitive, which is why the big area where this new gift is really going to help us is with career services.

We’re investing in talent and tools that can help our students succeed in the short term. In the long term, it’s about creating those better corporate relationships, building bridges with our alumni, and using that elevated reputation as a platform to attract even better students, who will be able to look at what we’re building here and see how W. P. Carey can help them reach their goals.

Our faculty and staff have a lot of sweat equity in making all of these pieces work together, from the curriculum changes to individual support to helping students achieve these amazing outcomes, so while there have been a lot of headlines about the demise of the MBA, we feel like we’re meeting that challenge head-on.