KU Executive Director of MBA and MSB Programs Discusses Trends and Triumphs in Graduate Management Education

Liaison International’s Bob Alig recently sat down with Dee Steinle, executive director of MBA and MSB programs and vice chair of Liaison’s BusinessCASTM advisory board, to discuss how the University of Kansas School of Business is adapting to keep pace with shifting demands in the graduate management education landscape. Read how KU is responding to changing student demographics and streamlining the admissions process.

Bob Alig (BA), Liaison: Let’s talk about the U.S. News & World Report rankings: The University of Kansas School of Business moved up at least 27 spots this year! No other school showed this kind of momentum. Can you tell us more about how you were able to make this incredible jump?

Dee Steinle (DS), University of Kansas: We are so excited to have made this kind of progress in the U.S. News & World Report ranking of full-time MBA programs. We ranked #73 overall and #39 among public schools this year. This year’s jump in rankings was a surprise to us, but one that has been in the works for some time.

A few years ago, we made big changes to our full-time program. We “right sized” our program to match our resources and focused on building excellence. We paid particular attention to serving the students and businesses of the state of Kansas, focusing first on being the very best MBA program in the state. We limit each cohort to 30-35 students. We set the intention to work with students individually on their long-term professional plans and more importantly, to highlight the talent of our very best faculty resources. This focus on excellence has paid off in terms of quality admissions and quality career outcomes.

Running a successful full-time program is a marathon, not a race. We have stayed true to our ideals, maintained a careful strategic plan, and carefully invested in those areas that are beneficial to our students and our long-term program health. When our students graduate from this program and believe they have made a good investment of their time and resources, that is success.

BA: A recent Poets and Quants article mentioned that the number of new international enrollees in U.S. universities declined for the first time in 12 years in 2017 and that business schools’ international application numbers are flat. Can you tell us more about the trends in international students at your institution?

DS: As a program in the middle of the country, we are impacted directly by the decline in international admissions. We began to notice a decline in 2016 — our international applications fell off and some of our international students who were accepted declined our offer to attend. At first it seemed like we were just having an off year, then it became clear that graduate education was the “canary in the coal mine” of a geopolitical issue.
Further, some great international MBA options now exist in many parts of the world. Whereas a decade ago, an MBA from a U.S. institution was the gold standard, we are now just one of the good options available to students.

The University of Kansas has a long history of educating successful international students and we realize how important their presence is in our full-time program. We are trying new ways to recruit international students to our program, but this is an issue that will not be resolved easily. As an industry, MBA programs will need to think about a long-term strategy to make our U.S. programs attractive to international students seeking graduate management education.

BA: Across higher education as a whole, the number of students over age 35 is expected to comprise 19 percent of the graduation total by the year 2020, a mild increase. What trends are you seeing in your applicant pool? Is your institution happy with the diversity of your current applicant pool or are you undertaking any initiatives to change it?

DS: We are actually seeing a younger population of MBA applicants these days. While we value those with work experience and seek them, we also embrace the change we’re experiencing in the marketplace. Our full-time program has a diverse age range. We have some very bright students without experience mingled with our experienced students. In fact, we have a cohort of mid-career U.S. Naval officers in our program who tend to set the experience curve. Somehow, we make this work. I think it is a testimony to the quality of human beings we admit to our program. They value each other and understand that diversity in thought and experience is important.

Of course, to be a program that welcomes younger students, we have made curricular adjustments to add value. A major part of that is a first-year project with Kansas small businesses. Teams of students work together to scope and solve business problems, often with great success and even job offers on the back end. There is so much to be gained from experiential learning in a full-time MBA program.

BA: Your school is one of the early adopters of Liaison’s Centralized Application Service (CAS™) for graduate management programs, BusinessCAS™. Can you walk us through your process of choosing BusinessCAS? What stakeholders did you involve and how did you get their buy-in?

DS: I was fortunate to be on a Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) board that studied the concept of a centralized application several years ago. While all members of the board and many GMAC schools found value in a centralized application for MBA students, it was a tough initiative to launch. We lacked the infrastructure to support a common application and interface with the many admission systems currently in place in MBA programs.

Along came BusinessCAS… Last summer I received an invitation to a webinar and saw that I knew one of the presenters — he had been instrumental in facilitating our GMAC board, so I knew that CAS must be a legitimate resource. I signed up for that webinar and things began to fall in to place quickly.

By early fall, I was on the BusinessCAS advisory board and in November, I traveled to the Liaison headquarters in Watertown, Massachusetts to see the operation. I was blown away by what I saw. Liaison admissions specialists were managing thousands of transcripts and application documents with great efficiency and getting information to schools at a speed I couldn’t fathom. I discovered that CAS has been working with graduate programs in healthcare since the mid-90s. Further, I discovered that the University of Kansas has four existing CASs at our medical center. At that point, I knew it was possible to get BusinessCAS implemented at KU. I already had precedent, and that is a big thing in a large public university.

I started talking about opportunities with my staff and B-School leadership before I even arrived home from Watertown. They were an easy sell. From there, my team met with staff from the KU physical therapy program to understand how CAS works for them. The final step was to convince KU Graduate Studies that BusinessCAS could work with our ADMIT system currently in place. It took a while to get everyone on the same page, but I’m happy to say that as of March 31, 2018, the KU School of Business is part of BusinessCAS.

BA: What problems are you looking to solve with BusinessCAS and why do you think BusinessCAS is the right tool for you and your team?

DS: The immediate issue that CAS resolves is to make the MBA application process seamless and efficient for students. We will share a common “front door” to our industry where prospective students can research our programs and ultimately send an application. The WebAdMIT software is very user-friendly — a student can set up a file and come back to it over time to manage applications. When you think about the time and money a student will save on developing a single application instead of several applications, it is clear that BusinessCAS will be a good move for our industry. It is definitely a good move for the KU MBA.

Beyond easing the burden for our students to apply, there is a lot of goodness in having top-quality MBA programs working together on a common goal. Attracting quality students is something we all want. As a small program, it can be difficult to make your presence known. When many high-quality MBA programs come together to send the message that an MBA is desirable, we make a bigger impact. We also communicate to students that there are many great schools out there that can help them reach their goals. My hope is that we can create a platform on BusinessCAS where students can make good choices about graduate business programs.

BA: What keeps you up at night? What is your biggest stress at this point in the admissions cycle, and is that stress different this year than it has been in previous years?

DS: There are lots of things that keep me up at night. My fifteen-year-old is learning to drive, so that’s a big one! But as an MBA director, one of my biggest stressors is the noise created by low-quality for-profit MBA programs. Not only are these programs an issue for our professional and online programs, they dilute the value of an MBA in general. These programs are competing for students in our professional programs, especially online, and while there is a degree of separation from our full-time programs, it is too close for comfort. I’d like to see top-quality programs raising our standards and delivering more value to our students and not less.

To get back to your question, I’m always nervous at this point in the admissions cycle. Will we get enough high-quality students to fill our cohort? We hope so. We know that BusinessCAS has the potential to ensure more eyes on our program, and that can’t be a bad thing. I am confident enough to think that if a prospective student takes a look at KU, they will come to KU. Lawrence, Kansas is a great place to be: We have a world-class facility in Capitol Federal Hall, top-notch faculty, and my MBA team is second to none. Beyond that, the network of Jayhawk MBAs spans the globe. We have lots of great things to offer at KU.

BA: You’re an active member of Liaison’s BusinessCAS advisory board. Can you please tell us more about what led you to join this board and how you see its value as you look ahead? How do you think the work of the advisory board in collaboration with Liaison colleagues might be a resource and support to you and your peers?

DS: I am so honored to be a part of the BusinessCAS advisory board. I’m even more honored to serve as co-chair of this group, alongside my friend Toby McChesney from Santa Clara University. Toby likens MBA directors to professional baseball players. We might wear a different uniform from time to time, but ultimately, we all know each other and play the same game.

Knowing that my peers are on board with CAS is important to me. I suspect there is no more collegial group than ours. As a group, we know what issues we face as an industry. How do we stay relevant? How do we continue to attract top-quality students to our programs? Liaison not only gives us a forum to discuss our issues, it gives us a platform and tools to address them.

BA: How do you think BusinessCAS will help participating programs extend their outreach, engage with prospective students more effectively and launch new programs?

DS: First and foremost, BusinessCAS gives us the software we need to make our application process a smooth one for prospective students. Beyond that, it provides us an opportunity to market the value of an MBA as an industry and that is powerful. We have seen what a centralized application can do for law and medicine. We can now put forth the value of an MBA as a whole, and then allow students to make good choices about program fit. It is a win/win.

BA: How do you envision BusinessCAS helping schools not only compete but thrive in this time of heightened competition? As we look ahead, how can Liaison and BusinessCAS better support you and your team?

DS: Again, I think the power is in the unity of schools pursuing a common goal. We all want to attract quality students and make our programs as relevant as possible. We know that an MBA (or specialized business degree) can be life changing for anyone who aspires to manage an organization. Whether someone is managing a large corporation, a small business or even a non-profit entity, an MBA provides the management skills necessary for success.

Right now, our programs are subject to assumptions by students because our collective message has not been clear. BusinessCAS gives us an opportunity to make that message clear. If we do that right, more students will understand the value proposition we offer.

If you’re looking to attract the right applicants to your graduate management education programs, BusinessCAS can help. Learn more about how BusinessCAS can help you reach your enrollment goals at businesscas.org.

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