As business schools reopen their campuses to in-person instruction this fall—many for the first time since the pandemic began—they are responding to COVID-19 measures and applying lessons learned during the precarious 2020 school year.
We spoke with leaders from three MBA programs that are prioritizing the in-person experience this semester after 18 months of offering a mix of hybrid and virtual opportunities.
Providing the “Full” MBA Experience Safely
Although the uncertainty of the pandemic looms over the start of the new school year, MBA leaders and students are excited about the possibility of a more traditional MBA experience in September, which often includes extensive networking, student collaborations, trips, and recruitment opportunities.
“I am really excited to go back in person because I do feel like I lost some of the opportunity to network and build relationships with people—that’s one of the biggest things with MBA programs,” says Stephanie Navasu who started her MBA program at the University of La Verne back in the fall of 2019.
The Wharton School is allowing its MBA Class of 2021 to attend an extra semester in-person this fall to make up for their fourth semester, which was taught online.
In preparation for an influx of students on campus, two of the schools we spoke with, Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business in Houston and the University of Miami’s Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, are enforcing mask mandates even as their governors fight in court to ban schools from requiring masks.
As the highly contagious Delta variant rages and scientific guidance continuously shifts, the schools frequently update their COVID safety measures.
As of August 31, the University of Miami is requiring students, faculty, and staff to wear masks in all indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status, and through September 17 will require masks outdoors when in groups of four or more. The school will require the unvaccinated to participate in COVID testing twice per week.
Jones Graduate School of Business and CUNY Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business are also requiring students and staff to wear masks, provide proof of vaccination and/or perform regular testing. The schools provide COVID testing onsite.
Other top programs have committed to in-person learning and are bringing students back to campus with considerable COVID safety precautions in place, including indoor mask mandates at Wharton, Columbia Business School, and University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
What MBA Programs Were Like in 2020
There is no doubt that COVID was disruptive for business schools last year.
Almost 90% of deans surveyed in a report commissioned by the Business School Impact System said they are likely or highly likely to do things differently after the pandemic, including diversifying their current activities and radically shifting their program design and content.
The study, conducted in October and November of 2020, indicated that business schools experienced a drop in students, a steep learning curve to remote learning, and reduced international student recruitment.
School deans also reported being concerned about maintaining a safe on-campus working environment and ensuring access and inclusion for students with little or no access to learning tech.
Revenue decreased at 43% of the 114 business schools surveyed although they experienced an increase in student inquires for 2021.
Last year, Rice redesigned courses and classroom technology to offer a hybrid approach with remote access for students, says Janice Kennedy, executive director of recruiting and admissions at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business.
The university primarily offered virtual networking and recruiting events, and if they did hold in-person events, they were typically outdoors with limited attendees.
Miami Herbert and Zicklin also pivoted to distance learning with great success. Both schools experienced a surge in participants in their virtual programs. Miami Herbert said its popular virtual series featuring leaders in business attracted more registrants than ever before, with attendees tuning in from more than 30 countries.
“Faculty developed a more sophisticated sense of how and when digital instruction can work to engage students,” says Henrik Cronqvist, Vice Dean for Lifelong Learning at Miami Herbert Business School, adding that students also found it easier to meet with faculty members during office hours.
At Miami Herbert, student organizations operated online and held socially-distanced events outdoors to maintain collaborative learning environments. Zoom allowed the school to connect its graduate students to more recruiters from around the world in ways which would have proven difficult face-to-face.
Applying COVID Lessons Learned
After more than a year of investing in technology and perfecting remote learning, MBA school leaders are receiving requests from students and recruiters to continue some virtual experiences they launched in 2020, including online corporate recruiting events.
“We planned so many virtual events, and we had to get really creative with them,” says Kennedy from Rice. “Our student program office also planned several drive-through events so students could connect with the community while picking up gifts and activities to enjoy at home.”
This fall, Zicklin’s full-time MBA program will offer classes predominately in-person, but evening MBA students can choose from a blend of in-person, online, and hybrid courses. Students can interact with the school’s graduate career management center primarily online for networking opportunities, recruiting, professional development activities, and speaker events.
“We have found that graduate students appreciate the flexibility provided by offering online programming, says Helaine J. Korn, Executive Director of Graduate Programs for Zicklin’s School of Business. “These students lead very busy lives—working, attending school, fulfilling family commitments, etc.—and, as much as they appreciate opportunities to meet their classmates, faculty, staff, and potential employers in person, they also value the opportunity to do so at their convenience, sometimes without commuting to another location to engage.”
Fred Burke, Director of Graduate Programs at Zicklin says the virtual experiences have taught students and alumni how to be “high tech and high touch,” which many employers consider an asset.