The ABCs of the MBA

Eighty new MBA students at UNC Charlotte gathered in a ballroom at the Westin last week for one of their first lessons: how to survive business school.

Among the tips from interim program director Jeremiah Nelson: “Procrastination will likely get you strangled.” And, manage your time wisely, because many students in part-time MBA programs will get promoted or change jobs before graduating.

“That's a good thing,” he told the crowd. “That's why we're all here, right?”

Tough economic times have made MBA programs more attractive to workers seeking a raise, a better job or a place to ride out the storm, experts say. Business schools in Charlotte are no exception, their leaders said this week as fall classes started. Local schools are reporting growing classes and applicant pools.

“In an economic downturn, employees are looking for some competitive edge,” said Mark Bryant, director of Wingate University's MBA program, whose enrollment is up 50 percent this year over last. “An MBA can be that.”

Business school isn't for everyone. It's expensive and time-consuming, and there's no guarantee of success, though MBA programs point out that their graduates on average earn more than those with bachelor's degrees.

“It's a look toward the future,” said Irka Templeton, 24, of Chicago, who recently finished undergrad at Duke University and enrolled in UNC Charlotte's MBA program. “It's one step on a very long ladder.”

Nearly 247,000 people worldwide took the GMAT, an early predictor of business school applicants, from July 2007 through June 2008. That's up from about 219,000 the year before – and the highest level since 2002, the last economic slowdown, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, a Virginia group that administers the test.

Nationally, enrollment was up last school year, too, to nearly 131,600 students from 103,500 the year before, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Much of the interest is driven by the MBA's increasing value in the workplace, said Dave Wilson, the GMAC's president and chief executive. Still, the economy is undeniably playing a part, he said.

For David Schroder, 25, a first-year student at UNC Charlotte, the desire for a job in the corporate world led him back to school.

“Having an MBA will allow you to get ahead of the curve,” said Schroder, who worked three years as an engineer before deciding to change careers. “It really can allow you to take advantage of the twists and turns.”