Who Needs A Traditional MBA Degree?

Mark your calendars! 2008 will mark the centennial anniversary of the world’s first MBA program. Yes, Harvard University is about to celebrate the one hundredth year of its full-time Master’s Degree in Business Administration.

But does it still serve a purpose? Back in 1908, America’s Industrial Age economy needed a process for inculcating engineers, scientists, and other professionals in the principles and practices of modern commerce. An aspiring young inventor at a firm like General Electric might thus seek a two year MBA Degree to complement a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial, Mechanical, or Electrical Engineering.

Today, though, many full-time MBA Degree programs are in decline. And many micro-credential, nano-degree, and part-time programs are ascendant. The reasons for this evolution are not surprising: the cost of higher education, the time required to obtain a traditional degree, the need for narrowly defined technical specialists, the capacity of internet-based technologies to convey information, etc.

But before we consign the full-time MBA program to the ash heap of history, let’s consider what we would lose if all graduate business students were to enroll in the newer options instead.

Think about it. Our undergraduate programs are still producing thousands of engineers and scientists each year to serve our social and economic needs. They’re producing nurses and social workers and teachers too. When all of these professionals advance to positions of organizational authority, won’t they need a comprehensive knowledge of business practices and principles?

If we shut down our full-time MBA programs, where will they go to obtain that knowledge? Do the new alternatives possess the capacity to replace two full years of formal education?

To be sure, it is indeed possible that many business managers will be able to function without two such years. And yet, as a point of comparison, the American education sector has eliminated traditional Civics classes from our public school curricula. How has that decision impacted our society?

So let’s not rush to bury the full-time MBA program. After all, it has served as a critical component of our nation’s educational infrastructure for the past century. If we destroy it today, we may not be able to rebuild it tomorrow.