MBA programs used to be the bread and butter of local business schools.

That’s changing as universities add non-MBA specialty master’s programs, driven by the demand from companies for more specialized managerial and data analysis skills.

USC’s Marshall School of Business, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Management and the University of La Verne’s College of Business and Public Management each have added up to 12 specialty master’s degree programs over the past six or seven years. Many are focused on data analytics, with others delving into finance, accounting and marketing.

These master of science programs generally have fewer courses than traditional MBA programs, making them cheaper for students. They also might provide graduates a faster, more immediate track to employment as companies seek evermore specialized data analysis skills.

“It’s all about the spread of big data through a whole bunch of industries and companies needing people who can analyze that data through a business lens,” said Genine Wilson, vice president for the Southern California region of Kelly Services, a Troy, Mich., staffing firm. “That’s why students graduating with master of science degrees from business schools are more immediately employable.”

The expansion of specialized master’s degree programs at business schools is a nationwide trend. Student enrollment in such programs almost doubled to 35,384 between the 2006-07 and 2015-16 academic years, according to a survey of 352 U.S. business schools by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accreditation organization in Tampa, Fla.

Meanwhile, enrollment in MBA programs nationwide has fallen. Total enrollment in the 2015-16 academic year slipped about 12.5 percent to 58,362 from its 2010-11 peak, according to the survey. Enrollment in full-time MBA programs fell 38 percent to just over 14,000, while enrollment in part-time (mostly evening) programs rose 3 percent to 44,278.

Graduated difference

Until a decade ago, data analysis and other specialty degree programs sought by businesses were generally offered through nonbusiness schools – such as engineering or economics – while business programs focused mostly on MBAs.

Some business schools shifted early, offering specialized master’s programs. Pepperdine’s Graziadio school started offering its master’s in organizational development in the 1970s, according to Kenneth Ko, the school’s associate dean of degree programs. Ko himself, though, received his data analytics training in engineering school.

Hiring someone with a doctorate in statistical analysis from an economics department or engineering school has a drawback, however, since graduates will be less likely to communicate their analysis to high-level operating executives, Ko and other business school administrators said.

Companies started demanding that business schools fill that gap about a decade ago.

“Companies need a person who can simultaneously understand Amazon web services or some other data set and then walk down the hall and explain with near MBA acumen what this all means for the business,” said Paul Brandano, executive director of a master’s in business analytics program at UCLA’s Anderson school that’s launching this November, the newest of the school’s two specialty master’s programs. “We are seeing this gigantic wave of demand for data science and business analytics from across the spectrum of our recruiters.”

That certainly is the case at one major Los Angeles County employer: downtown-based Southern California Gas Co., a unit of Sempra Energy of San Diego.

“Degrees in data analytics are definitely more in demand,” said Mary Gevorkian, staffing and human resources analytics manager for SoCal Gas.

She said that for higher-level positions, the company several years ago changed its stated preference for candidates with MBA degrees to “MBA-related” master’s degrees.

“This reflects that there is not as much of a premium as there used to be on MBA degrees just because there are so many other quality master programs out there,” she said.

The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, for example, said last month it is ending its full-time MBA program, shifting its emphasis to specialized master’s degrees.

Cost return

The demand among employers for more specialized degree programs is just one factor behind the drop in MBA enrollment. The other main one is cost: Full-time MBA programs typically require two years with full course loads and cost on average about $30,000 annually; top-rated programs can easily top $100,000 in total tuition.

Most specialty master’s programs last a year or a bit longer, with one-half to two-thirds of the course load, making them substantially cheaper.

The specialty master’s programs generally require either one year of work experience or have no work experience requirements. The more competitive MBA programs typically require at least three years of work experience.

Those circumstances help explain why local business schools have been adding specialized master’s programs at such a fast clip. Pepperdine’s Graziadio school added eight more master’s programs in the past nine years, Ko said.

The pace has been even faster at USC’s Marshall school, which has added 12 specialty master’s programs in the last five years.

Among the master’s program offerings: global supply chain management, entrepreneurship and innovation, marketing, and social entrepreneurship.

The difference in salaries between those with MBAs and specialty degrees varies depending on companies’ needs and the positions, said Rex Kovacevich, assistant vice dean of graduate programs at the Marshall school. Companies looking for breadth and experience might hire an MBA graduate at a higher salary, but if they are looking for more technical focus and not years of experience, they may lean toward master’s graduates for lower-paying positions.

“Companies are showing their demand for these students by hiring them,” Kovacevich said.

MBAs not MIA

But there’s still a place for the MBA.

It is a requirement for most C-suite executive jobs and management positions just below that level, according to representatives from two local exec recruiters.

“From my experience, I still predominantly see the MBA degree qualification, especially from my larger clients,” said Sam Wallace, market leader for technology for North America for Korn Ferry International, a Century City executive search firm.

Leigh Chaban, senior managing director for the L.A. region for Robert Half Executive Search, a unit of Robert Half International of Menlo Park, said she also sees the MBA as the dominant qualification.

“For top-level executives, the MBA isn’t going anywhere,” she said.

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