This Fellowship Program Fully Funds Degrees for Full-Time MBA Students
For many of those with student debt, graduate school can bring two things: career advancement, and more debt.
But at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one MBA program is taking the prospect of more debt out of the equation.
In this podcast episode, John Wells, Associate Dean at UMass Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management, explains how the Isenberg MBA fellowship is providing both hands-on experience and a fully funded graduate degree to their full-time MBA candidates.
Listen in to learn how.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times. Today we’re speaking with John Wells, associate dean of professional programs and professor of operations and information management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Our topic is student financial aid and debt. John, could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about the Isenberg School of Management at UMass.
John Wells: Thanks Hester. Yes my name is John Wells, Associate Dean for professional programs. I’ve been at the Isenberg School of Management and I have just finished my seventh year. I’m proud to be associated with the school. It’s a public institution, and that’s sort of near and dear to my heart, as I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, and I got my graduate degrees from Texas A&M University. The public school mission to me, I think, is an important one for any state that wants to advance its economic opportunities.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So tell us a little bit about the fellowship program and what makes it unique.
John Wells: The Isenberg Fellowship Program… when I was originally the associate dean just for the online part-time and we had a separate associate dean for the full-time program. And at the time we did some partial funding. And what we found was, some of it didn’t take long for students to figure out that some students were being funded at a different level than other students. And I actually experienced the same thing in my graduate program and it created a cultural problem. And when I was talking to the dean about it, I said, you know I think that if you’re good enough to be admitted and matriculate into the Isenberg MBA program, I think you’re good enough to have the same level of funding. And we also strategically wanted to make this a very boutique MBA so, we kind of shrunk the size. A lot of MBA programs you know try to get to 150, 200 students. And I’ll get to that in a minute when it comes to recruiting that creates critical mass for recruiters to come to campus.
John Wells: But for us, in order to be able to afford this, we wanted to shrink the size and be able to give everyone the same level of funding. What we had heard from students in the New England region was, I hear you’re the free MBA. And that was something we wanted to get away from. Because I think, when you talk about quality signals, a lot of times people will say, “Well, you get what you pay for.” And if they don’t feel like they have skin in the game or investment…So we wanted to create a formal program and this was where the MBA fellowship sort of came to be. We wanted to give the students an assignment as something that would contribute to the Isenberg mission. And as a result, we feel like they are very talented individuals and we can take advantage of their skills and knowledge to advance our mission. But at the same time, giving them valuable professional skills, something they can put on their resume, that in turn helps them [to] be more attractive in the job market. So we felt like it was a mutually beneficial sort of partnership, and the fellowship formalized it. We were, as I said before, providing some level of support. But we decided just to say, let’s be unambiguous, let’s provide full tuition support plus a $9,000 a year stipend — something that students can use to help offset rent, you know, food expenses, things like that. So the vast majority of our students graduate with with little to no student debt depending on how they manage their finances while they’re in the program.
John Wells: It also comes with health benefits as well, given Massachusetts mandate to have everyone insured. It’s another benefit, where they can take advantage of that. But that’s sort of, you know, my personal connection was that I felt culturally everyone should feel like they’re all taking on the same rope. And some students felt like they were being treated different than others. So making this a uniform thing — they’re all Isenberg fellows, MBA fellows. And I think they have that in common and it creates a stronger sense of collegiality amongst the students as they move forward in the program.
Hester Tinti-Kane: One of the things I think is very interesting about the program, and I read this on the website, is that the students are actually working on real business problems and strategic initiatives for the school.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So can you tell us a little bit more about that, maybe give us an example?
John Wells: Three or four years ago, I hired the director of institutional, organizational metrics. And this is something that, you know, that dovetails nicely into analytics, which is a very hot area for anyone going into business these days. So we’ve had a number of students get assigned to our director of original metrics. And they get trained on various analytical tools. They get, you know, one example would be Tableau where you can create a dashboard. But what they’ll do is they’ll go out and and design and administer surveys for us to be able to survey our students, anticipate when we have an issue in the program. So, we’ll create key performance indicators. They’ll…design and administer the survey, they’ll package the data they’ll put it in Tableau in a nice format where the dean, the associate deans, other key decision makers can see it, and help us advance our mission. When we have an issue we need to address, at least in this program, we’re sliding on this particular dimension. I think we do need to hire more staff or we need to do something. So it helps us manage our business more effectively, but they can turn around and say I was trained on these key technologies. I know how to leverage data to enhance decision making, and they’re directly involved in that process.
John Wells: You know we also had another team of MBAs that helped us with…we had a shop Isenberg site where people like to exhibit school pride. But what they got to do was they got to procure inventory, they got to create a website, and go through the entire supply chain logistics in terms of how you order an item, how you source it, deliver it, you know, reconcile the finances. And that was another project where they worked with…directly with our marketing group and our chief marketing officer to launch that. And so we’ve had several that you know helps — you know, it’s real life experience for them. But are schools being managed more and more like a business? I think…if you asked a lot of deans, you would find that more and more business schools are being managed this way. And so, we felt like by organizing…ourselves this way and then by leveraging our MBA talent… And you know, 10 years ago most MBAs were assigned to a professor and they’d create Excel assignments or something. You know that…you may learn Excel a little more in depth, but I don’t think that’s as valuable as being assigned to a real life project where I think the technologies and the knowledge and the things that you’re taking advantage of…move well beyond what you would get from a traditional teacher assistantship.
Hester Tinti-Kane: It sounds like there’s been a pretty big impact on UMass and general on a program like this. So, are there other programs at UMass where the graduate students are so engaged in the management and sort of the way that that school runs?
John Wells: I mean it could be I mean we have a lot of schools are very innovative. You know when it comes to mind is the newly established college of information and computer science and they’re launching similar programs to ours. I know they’re being very entrepreneurial and moving in this way. You know we definitely have a head start–our online programs have been in existence for over 10 years. And so we’ve been able to generate that revenue stream and be able to invest in staff to be able to create this organizational structure to move in this direction. So I think we have a bit of a head start but what we’re seeing from U-Mass overall is more and more schools and colleges are moving this way–being more innovative and entrepreneurial in their thinking. And I think, you know, when they take their graduate students, when graduate students matriculate into programs, they’ve seen what we’ve done and I think they’re starting to leverage that student talent in a similar manner.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And you just mentioned the online programs, and the history, a little bit of the history of the online programs. So the fellowship program has been around for how many years?
John Wells: The fellowship program formally was…launched in fall of 14.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And full-time, they’re on campus.
John Wells: They’re on campus. It’s a two-year program. The reason I mention online is that we have intentionally blurred the line between our full-time, online, part-time. Our full-time students want to be introduced and network with the online, part-time students–that’s typically an older demographic. But also, one thing we try to do is get out of their way. The curriculum is front-loaded in the first year, where you’re taking about 80 percent of it in year one. If you do a focus and you do some extracurriculars, your second year is much more freeform, and you’re providing more latitude to explore. But if you get an internship and get a full time offer we tell you stay where you are and finish the program on line and keep your job. Because in our mission statement, what we say is, our mission is to connect every student with the professional opportunity they’re seeking. We don’t have salary limitations. We don’t have industry limitations. We really feel like the world is moving so fast we want to make sure these students were provided the opportunity to do what they are passionate about and that may be a nonprofit or maybe going to work for you know the AMC or you know a major corporation. So we want to make sure that we get out of their way and provide them with the resources to be able to make those connections. And as soon as they make it, that online program provides us with that flexibility to say, stay where you are. Keep that job.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So that is a really exciting prospect. The idea of the part-time online students connecting with these full-time face-to-face students. So, how do you facilitate that?
John Wells: We have several alumni events over the year. We take advantage of the UMass Club in Boston–it’s a great presence on One Beacon. And we’ll have two or three of those a year, where we’ll have the online, part-time current students and alumni along with alumni from the full-time and the current students from the full time. And we actually charter a bus for the current full-time students, and we all bus over together. And so they’re great kindling for those events right? These eager young minds, you know, and the alumni and students–now my part-time, like I said, are a little older–but they love to connect with them, they love their energy. And that sort of networking, we feel like UMass has this vast alumni network that I think is a key differentiator here for us. We have people in organizations all across New England and the more we make those connections, the more those special opportunities grow for our full-time students.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right, you can have an amazing alumni network, but are you facilitating the network, helping your existing students? It sounds like you are doing just that.
John Wells: We hired a director for alumni corporate relations exclusively for the MBA program. So her name is Trista Hevey and she spends everyday just figuring out how to connect students to these opportunities. She organizes these events, she makes sure, you know, the alumni, you know, are engaged and that they’re invited and we do panel discussion–we make valuable, I think, for everyone. So you know, the alumni can come and learn…a new topic, or you know, something interesting is going on in the business world. But then we always make sure there’s enough time for networking. But we have dedicated specific resources to make sure that…this is something that has adequate attention. I mean that there is a key priority placed on alumni engagement because that I think is the key differentiator. I mean MBA curriculum, if you were to go to every website, I think you would find most MBA programs have similar curriculum. You know there is a principals of marketing his operations management strategy you know. But what really sets programs apart is the extracurriculars, the alumni engagement, the professional opportunities that come with enrolling in that program.
Hester Tinti-Kane: True, true. Let’s talk a little bit about the costs. You know I would actually love to hear–you talked earlier a little bit about recruitment. So, I mean, where are your students coming from, what are the costs to your students.? Let’s just talk a little bit about that piece.
John Wells: Prior to my coming on, we were probably 60:40 domestic:international. We like a diverse student cohort and the international students bring a lot to the classroom. My primary challenge for international students these days are work visas. So I really, you know, struggle with the fact that we bring them into a two-year program, give them, you know, what I would think is a very good educational experience–an MBA–but then…having them struggle with work visa issues. And I didn’t like seeing them struggle, given that they’re very talented, they had a lot to contribute. But just due to, you know, the bureaucracy and the red tape that comes with that, we have started to go with more domestic students, because we can place a higher percentage of them. You know, if that reality changes on the international front I think we may pivot back. Of the 80 percent domestic, I would say, maybe 60 to 80 percent, depending on the year, come from New England and the region. We’ve been having some success drawing from California, Colorado, some from the Southeast in Florida and the Georgia region. Primarily, we’re serving New England.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great. And then the costs. So, I mean the fellowship, the exciting thing about the fellowship is that it really has a very positive impact on.
John Wells: The minute you’re an MBA fellow, your tuition’s waived, so particularly for out-of-state students, it’s a huge savings. Because if you’re in state, I would estimate your tuition for our MBA is around $25,000, it would be around $50,000 for your out-of-state. So there’s your, you know, that’s for the entire program, for tuition and fees. And so, that’s a nice front-end savings. But on top of that…there’s opportunity costs… You may be working, and you know, by leaving a job and going to a residence for a two-year MBA program, we do provide them with an annual stipend of $9,000. And so the combination of the tuition waiver, plus the stipend allows them to really not worry about money and really focus more on their education and their subsequent opportunities that come next.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Let’s move on a little bit and talk about the value in terms of income that the MBA brings to these recipients. I mean, it sounds like they’re getting some fantastic work experience, as they’re diving into you know, data and analytics, and you know, other areas really supporting the school of management as a business. Of course, they have the credential of the MBA. So as your students are moving on, where are they finding the value, like in terms of…does it help them bump up their salary to a certain range? Does it help them…get into an organization at a certain level? What is the difference, I guess, between somebody who’s coming with an undergraduate and somebody who’s coming with a graduate degree in business into the marketplace?
John Wells: A lot of that will depend on the number of years of professional experience they bring into the MBA, employers typically pay on that. And so we have, for the full-time MBA as a matter of process, we’d like to see three years of professional work experience. So the MBA is value added. You know, so you take that experience plus an MBA. That’s where the value add lies. And so we typically hear students they may have left a job making you know fifty, fifty-five, sixty thousand dollars, and our average salary just for this excellent class was over 80. So there’s a significant bump in salary. But like I said, we have a lot of people that will say, I’m going to go work for Habitat for Humanity, and I’ll say that you know…that’s not going to pay as much as going to work for State Street. But…if that’s their passion, and that’s where they want to go, we don’t discourage that. So not only is the value add I think in salary, but the value add is an opportunity, and getting in positions that people find rewarding.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So let’s get back to where we started. How would a prospective student apply for the program? What are the requirements and qualifications that you’re looking for, for an incoming Isenberg fellow?
John Wells: If you go to our website. Isenburg.UMass.EDU and go to the MBA link, there’s an “Apply Now” button directly on our website. So most people will click on that, to initiate their application. If you’re not ready to apply right away, we have a request for information button on that same website, we have the ability to sign up for an information session. Most of our information sessions now are virtual, but you get a live advisor who will walk you through, invite you to the program, things like that. So people that are interested, there’s a number of ways to get more information. You know, we invite them, the full-time students to do campus visits. So there’s a way to sign up for that to come in. Meet with the director of the program, meet with advisers. You sit in on a class, you know, to get a sense of the program, meet the other students that are currently in the program. So, I would encourage people to gather as much information — compare us to everybody. You know, I’m not afraid of competition. I think that with the fellowship, and the stipend, and the quality of our program and our faculty and some of the professional development they’re getting, I feel comfortable competing with anyone, both domestically and internationally. You know, I don’t get hung up on any one dimension. We have several things we look at. Undergraduate GPA, we look at the GMAT score, we look at your professional experience, we look at your personal statement. It’s a very multi-dimensional evaluation.
John Wells: We interview everybody, either through Skype or in person. And we have several people in the interview. So we triangulate all our decisions. So you know a lot of times we’ll have someone with a lower GMAT, but they’re really interested in an important industry niche. They have a lot of passion. They could’ve just had a bad day. We’re not going to get hung up on maybe a slightly lower GMAT if we feel like it. At the end of the day, we’re saying how likely can we place this person? How likely can…you know, what’s the probability of putting them in a really good professional opportunity, which will make them happy and make us look good? And then those two things are really, at the end of the day, all we look at. So we could get someone with a 750 GMAT that had no idea what they want to do and looks like they’re meandering, we may pass on them. Because, you know, we want someone that, you know, at least has a sense of knowing why they want to get their MBA. There are some people that say, you know, I won’t explore marketing and finance. I don’t have a problem with that. But if someone’s like, I just don’t know what to do next, I just figure I’ll kill some time in the MBA. If we pick up on that, we’ll say, this probably isn’t the program for you. Because we can’t afford too many students that don’t take their MBA and advance their career or their professional life in some form or fashion.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s right. And just one final question — how large is the incoming class — so for this fall, for example?
John Wells: We have 31. The other thing that we’re really proud of is that for the second year in a row, we have more female confirmed and matriculated students than male, and we really want to promote that. We have a Women of Isenberg Conference. Gender diversity has been a strategic priority for the dean. And so, I think, you know, he’s been out in front on that. And so, 30-31 is where we are right now on our incoming class. We also have 10 dual-degree students that we partner with in our sports management department. So overall they’re sitting in a class of 40 to 45 on average.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, thank you so much for your time today John. It’s been a great conversation. Thank you.
This podcast episode is sponsored by Inversant, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps lower- to middle-income families plan and save for college.
If you would like to donate to Inversant,visit Inversant.org/donate.
To learn more about how Inversant can help you prepare for your child’s future, visit inversant.org/educationlibrary.
Listen to the full series, “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.”
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.