Many leaders of local MBA programs still paint a bright picture for prospective applicants, despite a recent national survey that found fewer MBA students are landing jobs before graduation.

The survey, released this summer by the Graduate Management Admission Council "” a nonprofit that owns the Graduate Management Admission Test "” surveyed 5,274 job-seeking graduate management students at 147 business schools around the world.

Of those surveyed, only 40 percent of students in full-time two-year MBA programs had an employment offer before graduation this year. That's down from 50 percent in 2009. Only 22 percent of part-time MBA students received a job offer before graduation, down from 38 percent last year. And, less than a quarter of executive MBA students had an offer before graduation, a drop from 44 percent in 2009.

But the news isn't all bad. The survey also found that this year's MBA students are more optimistic about the economy than students were in 2009, and reports are surfacing that the nation's most elite business schools, including Harvard and MIT, are seeing slight increases in recruiting.

To Tristate MBA program heads, the light at the end of the tunnel is welcome, and they're beginning to see glimmers themselves.

"Opportunities are not as robust," concedes Brad Bays, director of MBA programs at Miami University's Farmer School of Business. "Fewer people are probably saying they found their dream job coming out of the program, but we spend more time talking about"¢not the job you get right out of school, but the career path it links to."

He uses himself as an example. He started out on the lower rungs of Procter & Gamble to eventually become associate director for North American Purchases, as well as finance manager for the North America Tissue and Towel division and P&G Switzerland. "If we put people on a path that leads to success and enjoyment, even if they start out with less money, that's the world we live in," he says.

Bays sees another challenge in the way businesses now recruit. "Companies are now hiring to fill openings as opposed to hiring a pool of people that they're going to work into the company." But, he continues, out of last year's class of 26 full-time students, all but one of those looking for a job now has one. "So people are finding jobs. The process just takes a lot longer."

Dona Clary, director of graduate programs for the University of Cincinnati's College of Business, agrees. "People have to be willing to be a little more open in their possibilities of what they might want to do."

She notes that, in these tough economic times, more companies are cutting back tuition reimbursement programs. She believes her school's part-time program, which saw fewer applications this year than last, was affected by that. "If a potential student has a job, he or she is often doing more work because of layoffs and doesn't have time to go back to school. Or, maybe their job is more tenuous, so they don't want to make the financial or time commitment."

One trend helping prospective students, Clary says, is the growing number of schools lifting work experience restrictions on potential applicants, so if they graduate with a bachelor's degree but are unable to find a job in their field, they don't have to wait before going back to school.

Also helping students is the sheer amount of available options.

At Xavier University, students have the freedom to choose between five MBA offerings, including part-time, weekend, executive, off-campus and evening. The variety of programs lets people from different stages of their career elect the option that best fits their lifestyle.

Applicants are also becoming more educated about where to earn their MBA, says Jennifer Bush, assistant dean of graduate programs at Xavier's Willams College of Business. "There are a lot of choices out there, more choices now than there were a few years ago. But you have to be careful because there is a difference between degrees."

Bush says employers are going to give more credence to schools with accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB. And students are going to benefit from that accreditation because it means the school not only provides a degree, but career resources, as well.

At Northern Kentucky University, the MBA program is designed specifically to help the working professional who wants to advance his or her current career. "We kind of ban the term "¢part-time' because these people are anything but," says Jim Bast, MBA program director.

Although NKU's typical MBA student is part-time, however, Bast reports an increase in the number of full-time students enrolled in the past year. "We're seeing a small uptick in the number of people who are pursuing the degree full-time based on the economic condition. People see this as an opportunity after losing their job or being downsized."

In fact, Xavier, Miami, UC and Wright State University all saw an increased enrollment in their full-time programs this year, as well.

Berkwood Farmer, dean of Wright State's Raj Soin College of Business, says, "Just based on what I see going on around the country, I think that MBA enrollment is up now compared to a couple of years ago. I think the economic downturn has been a positive push for the MBA program. What concerns me is if the economy doesn't return quickly, there won't be enough jobs."

What Farmer is more concerned about now, though, is a dip in salaries. "I haven't heard it yet, but I'm probably going to hear from some of our graduates leaving now that they're not making as much as last year's class. Employers are probably thinking, "¢We've got so many good applicants, we don't have to pay them as much.'"

The fear over a sluggish job market and declining salaries extends beyond the MBA. It affects business programs across the board.

Dr. Kenneth Rhee, director of the Master of Science in Executive Leadership and Organizational Change program at NKU, believes that if the economy is depressed for more than a few years, people will be more careful about spending their time and money on furthering their education when they are unsure it will pay off.

"During an economic downturn, students who graduate and can't find jobs come back to school to explore options," Rhee says. "So I've seen a pattern where enrollment goes up at the beginning of a downturn, but goes down if the economy doesn't recover in a relatively short time."

NKU's executive leadership program, which teaches managers and professionals leadership and organizational skills, has maintained its level of enrollment, Rhee says, but did not see an increase this year. "Enrollment kept increasing, but this year it stayed the same. That may indicate the impact of the downturn a little bit."

One area that seems to be benefiting from the recession, even in the jobs realm, is adult training.

At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College's Workforce Development Center, the affect on enrollment has been dramatic, says Executive Director Dennis Ulrich. In fact, the program has seen a 25 percent increase this year.

"People are going back to school and entering training programs to get back into the workforce quickly," he says, adding that programs with certificates, such as pharmaceutical technician and auditor training, are among the most popular offerings because they allow students to take an exam, earn their certificate and start making money again.

Ulrich also points to an additional bonus this year for people interested in the WDC's lab skills program, certificate program in pharmaceutical/medical device, or associate degree program in biotechnology. Thanks to a $5 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, of which Cincinnati State received more than $800,000, up to 117 people can go through any of those three programs for free.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for people who want to re-engineer their skills and get back into the workforce quickly," he says.