UCLA's B-school revamp: It's all about jobs

August 11, 2011: 10:18 AM ET

UCLA's Anderson school has completed a sweeping curriculum overhaul in the hopes to get their students to develop a specialty early on so they are more attractive to job recruiters. But can they get their students to commit?

By John A. Byrne, contributor

UCLA's Anderson School of Management

UCLA's Anderson School of Management

(poetsandquants.com) -- In the past four years, UCLA's Anderson School of Business  hired Deloitte Consulting twice to study the best practices of several top business schools, interview corporate recruiters of MBAs, and do a deep dive into the competitive landscape of graduate business education.

The outcome of that spadework resulted in a simple but crucial insight: All too often, many first-year students show up on campus unsure of what they want out of the degree. They have yet to set their sights on a specific field of study or industry. And if and when they finally do, corporate recruiters see less of a straight line to their industries and more of a zigzag that leads to questions about commitment and desire.

That primary finding has been the driving force in Anderson's sweeping curriculum overhaul announced on August 8. The changes are part of an effort to more quickly get students to commit to a specific track of study and channel them into a more productive internship, which should, in turn, set them up for the best possible job offers in their chosen field.

Many schools, of course, have "majors" or "concentrations" of study. But Anderson is rearranging its first year curriculum so that MBA candidates can make these choices as early as possible. And as a clever inducement for students to make an early commitment, the school will offer a suite of certificates in as many as a dozen specific areas of study. Each certificate lays out a set menu of courses required for the additional credential.

From the start of the new curriculum this fall, the school will offer certificates in real estate, the management of technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. Subject to university approval, Anderson also hopes to roll out certificates in branding, healthcare, and entertainment. Ultimately, say school officials, they expect to have three or four in finance, at least three in marketing, and one in human resources.

"This structure will create very clear signaling of student preparation and interests by virtue of their selection of tracks, their sequencing of courses, and the availability of certificates," says Judy Olian, who became Anderson's dean in early 2006 after a stint as dean of Penn State's Smeal College of Business. "Rather than this amorphous MBA, with a bit of this and a bit of that, this provides very clear information to the marketplace."

Encouraging MBAs to commit: A losing proposition?

It's a novel approach, but it could wind up discouraging students who are less willing to sign up for a specific subject and who use the MBA degree to explore different career choices. Olian maintains that the changes aren't meant to be overly restrictive. "We're not locking them in," she insists. "We are an educational institution. We are not a prison. So if they make a mistake, they can change. But we're looking for them to articulate their choice before they get here."

Andrew Ainslie, senior associate dean of the MBA program, believes that the benefits of the new curriculum will far outweigh the costs. "From the student perspective, this helps MBAs signal their identity to the market," he says. "What we're trying to do is say to a student, 'If you are interested in finance, we are going to make sure you walk out of this institution with the best finance preparation that we can give you.' We are trying to help students identify who they are in the marketplace.'"

Besides the prescribed courses, there also will be what Olian calls an additional "deepening curriculum experience" and a 20-week client project tailored to a particular certificate. The mandatory research project will turn students into consultants for major companies, involving them in a wide range of projects that range from exploring new business opportunities to developing pricing strategies.

What have they done for job recruiters lately?

The consulting reports from Deloitte, one delivered a year ago and another one three years earlier, informed much of the thinking behind the changes. "Sometimes schools look inward for their curriculum reform and say, 'This is who we are and here are the characteristics of our students,'" says Olian. "We wanted to know what the market wanted from us and that was has shaped this curriculum."

The first study focused on the structure of Anderson's careers and employment services. The second study, says Olian, examined the "whole value chain of the MBA educational experience, from admissions through recruiter perceptions."

Among other things, the studies revealed a shortfall in the school's curriculum on communications. That discovery led to a new communications course in the first quarter along with a series of "leadership introspection experiences" during orientation. Those changes were put through a year ago.

Deloitte also found flaws in how the school interacted with recruiters. "If you look carefully at the U.S. News rankings, it was pretty clear we weren't doing great on the recruiter side of things," says Ainslie. "The two big things we could fix there was good leadership in our career management center and this communications class."

Anderson recruited Rob Weller, a 1991 Anderson alumnus who had worked at Goldman Sachs (GS), the Union Bank of Switzerland, and Trust Company of the West, as an executive-in-residence in 1997 at its Career Management Center. More recently, he took over as assistant dean of career services to forge better relations with corporate recruiters.

U.S. News ranks Anderson 14th in the U.S. with a "recruiter assessment score" of 3.9 on a zero to 5.0 scale with 5 being the best. By comparison, Berkeley's Haas School, which is tied with Dartmouth's Tuck School for seventh place, has a recruiter score of 4.1. The highest recruiter score in the last U.S. News survey belonged to Stanford, which scored a 4.6. Poets&Quants ranks Anderson 17th, largely due to lower rankings from the Financial Times and The Economist.

Translating the changes into jobs

The school's identity has largely revolved around its prime location in southern California and its strength in finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, and operations. A vast majority of students who come to UCLA for an MBA fall in love with the place and stay in the area for the rest of their careers. "We are really well known for having a genuine culture of community, interaction, and students working with each other," adds Ainslie. "That is a wonderful reason to come here but it is not clear how that gives us an advantage in the marketplace."

Analysis of MBA job market trends by Weller, for example, showed that there are 9,000 MBA jobs listed in San Francisco and Silicon Valley each year, more jobs listings than New York and far more than southern California. Yet, the output of top MBAs from both Stanford and Berkeley is so small that it can't satisfy demand. "That is a market we are trying to get our students to look at more seriously," says Ainslie.

With the new changes, Anderson is trying to find middle ground between the University of Chicago's Booth School "smorgasbord approach" of allowing students maximum flexibility in designing their MBA program and the Harvard Business School's lockstep approach in which first-year students take all their classes together in sections of 90 students each.

"We still wanted some structure and a set of classes that students do together. But we wanted to offer the flexibility of taking classes early in such courses as finance, marketing and strategy that tend to lead to career paths," says Ainslie

Will all these changes actually lead to more focused MBA graduates? Anderson certainly hopes so. "I hear from a lot of employers all the time that what they are looking for is early value from the MBAs they employ," says Olian. "They don't want to go through a retraining exercise. They want to have people they can count on from early on to be real contributors…."

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About This Author
John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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