A faster (and cheaper) alternative to an MBA

March 14, 2012: 10:37 AM ET

Master's in management programs are booming, especially among liberal arts grads in pursuit of a competitive edge.

FORTUNE -- After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2006 with a B.S. in political science, Evan Rezin found a job as a marketing associate at Bemis, a $5.3 billion-a-year maker of flexible packaging for consumer goods and pharmaceuticals. She enjoyed the work, but "political science has nothing to do with selling flexible packaging," she notes. "I want to be ready to move up into management when the opportunity comes along."

So Rezin enrolled part-time in the master's in management program at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. She'll graduate in June. Halfway through her studies, she got assigned to one of Bemis's biggest customers. Rezin believes that's no coincidence: "I suspect I wouldn't have been promoted to a national sales rep position if I hadn't been working on a master's."

That kind of competitive edge (real or perceived) explains the current jump in enrollment in master's in management programs nationwide. The Graduate Management Admissions Council reports that while applications to traditional MBA programs were "down significantly" at 67% of B-schools in 2011, more than two-thirds of master's in management programs are seeing a surge in enrollment.

MORE: Want to revamp B-school? Ask the recruiters.

It's easy to see why. While MBA tuition averages $60,000 and can run as high as $100,000, a master's in management will set you back, on average, about $30,000 -- or far less if you enroll at a state university in your home state.

MiM degrees are quicker, too. Full-time students can usually complete the degree in nine months, versus two years for an MBA. Studying part-time, as most MiM candidates do, allows students to earn the degree in two years or less while working full-time, or conducting a full-time job search.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is in the admissions requirements. While MBA curricula are intended for seasoned businesspeople with an eye on the C-suite who want in-depth, specialized knowledge, MiM courses are designed to give liberal arts grads like Rezin a broad, general understanding of how the business world works.

MiM courses typically cover statistics, finance, accounting, and "lots of practical skills like project management, team leadership, and business communications," says Amy Hillman, executive dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State, which is launching a new MiM program this year to meet rising demand.

MORE: Northwestern Kellogg to shrink two-year MBA program

"We're seeing a lot of MBA applications from students with undergraduate degrees but no work experience," Hillman explains. "We're also hearing from corporate recruiters that they want liberal arts and engineering grads who have some basic business knowledge as well."

A word of advice from Rezin, however: Even though no business experience is required for enrollment, "people really should work for at least a couple of years first, rather than going straight from undergraduate to graduate school. You'll get a lot more out of it if you have some experience, so you can connect the theories to reality."

For that very reason, MiM programs almost always include a consulting project. At Arizona State, for instance, in the last 15 weeks of their course work, students "will be working in teams in real companies solving real problems," says Hillman. "It's important, because sometimes in the classroom business sounds easy. But out in the real world, it can be a little messier." Too true.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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