Competing Effectively for MBA Students: Working Harder and Smarter in Unprotected Markets

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

I'd like to begin this discussion with three rudimentary observations:

1   Aspiring MBA candidates pursue graduate business studies to learn
    and hone good business practices. Therefore, it seems axiomatic
    that every MBA program should be an exemplar of such practices.

2   A fundamental tenet of good business is to seek the best value for
    your money.

3   If your MBA program models anything less than exemplary business
    practices, your future survival is tenuous, particularly if your
    clients have alternatives.

Too often today we see MBA programs behaving as though their prospective clients have few, if any, viable alternatives. Even some of my own colleagues act as though we still face a protected, if not closed, market for MBA students. Granted, we do make an effort to compete with our across-town rival by offering scheduling flexibility and class location options for busy professionals, and we're fortunate to have a cadre of excellent teachers. However, beyond that many remain complacent, and that's a dangerous perspective to embrace, especially in today's rapidly changing environment.

Allow me to paint my own competitive landscape and consider if it justifies complacency. The Seattle area offers two AACSB-accredited MBA programs. Ours, at Seattle University, is by far the largest with over 700 current students. The other, at the University of Washington, offers a financial bargain for in-state residents and enjoys an enviable reputation as part of a major research university. So as a direct competitor to Seattle University, the U of W has two big guns: low price and good reputation. How long will Seattle University keep its enviable market share?

You might think that this threatening question would have my colleagues staying up late at night thinking up new and better ways to "be better" in this competitive environment. As far as I can tell, I'm the only one who is losing sleep.

HONOR AMONG THIEVES

This complacency among business-school faculty stems from a misguided belief that we operate in protected markets. If you're an MBA program director, you may disagree with this statement, asserting that you are striving valiantly against fierce competition. With due respect, I don't see that behavior or that mentality, either among my own colleagues or among yours. To be sure, we all recite a mantra extolling academic and instructional excellence, but it has a relaxed tone to it. When we talk about giving "outstanding service," it is within an implied context that I like to call the "honor among thieves" syndrome in higher education.

At Seattle University it sounds something like this: "We give outstanding student service. If you don't think so, you should talk to a U of W student." Or, "at SU you are not just a number like you are at the U of W." Deeply imbedded in this argument is an assumption about poor service quality at the competition, and this same tenuous comparison with other schools is part of the academic culture nationwide. "We don't have to be very good, because University X across town is even worse." It's kind of an implied "honor among thieves," as long as we all continue to play along. At Seattle University, we really trust the U of W to always deliver poorer service to its clients--to honor its side of this nefarious agreement. The problem is, I'm not sure the U of W, or your across-town University X, ever bought into this agreement to begin with, and I surely don't think they can be trusted to honor their promise of lousy service any longer!

CLIENT SERVICE BASICS: A STRATEGY FOR SURVIVAL

I think most of us will take as a given that tuition rate differentials will not give us a market advantage if they don't already do so. I don't think the U of W will double or triple its MBA tuition in the short term, and I'm certain we won't be slicing ours to half of what it currently is. …

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