Despite the economy or because of it, Greater Cincinnati's universities are re-engineering their Masters of Business Administration programs.

The goal: graduate students with real world experience who are better equipped to handle all situations at work — or are ready to start their own firms.

When savvy MBAs are in the C-Suite — or advising those who are — change is possible, educators and entrepreneurs say.

"If we don't mobilize MBAs to help businesses, to link these ideas with business resources, they won't make it," says Joe Carter, the director of Xavier's Sedler Family Center for Entrepreneurship
& Innovation.

To Every Program, a Niche

Each Tristate MBA offering has a niche: training younger students, working with executives, marrying the MBA with a Masters of Science or focusing on a small cohort of working professionals.

Some zero in on entrepreneurship; others ethical leadership. All are seeing increased enrollment. Combined, they can reshape the region into a powerhouse equipped to tackle economic challenges.

"If we are graduating students who can come up with original ideas and have the sense that it is OK to take risks, then we will strengthen the economy," says Mark Meyers, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Health and Education at Xavier University.

Cross-collaboration

At Xavier, collaborations span the campus. MBA students are paired with start-up firms in the X-Lab "Launch A Business" competition, to offer business expertise.

Students learn other disciplines to prepare for dealing with all types of professionals.

"It's about what can they learn from other viewpoints," Meyers says. "We can give them the ability to ask questions and get those answers to help with whatever comes up."

Interim Dean at XU's Williams College of Business Stafford Johnson says it's about creating an entrepreneurial culture and providing real-life experiences. It's an approach that follows the service academy philosophy of "knowledge, doing and being."

Participating in the X-Lab could become a requirement for MBA students. The Williams College also wants to launch an investment or finance lab to let students develop high yield or global funds, or create a limited partnership for a start-up firm.

A student-run e-business publication is in development too, to take advantage of Xavier's 44-terminal Bloomberg lab.

"We want students to be able to connect the knowledge with the doing," Johnson says. "The "being" part is tougher. What are their important values? And are they able to take them and relate that in the world with other people?"

Two Degrees at Once

A transition to semesters prompted business faculty at the University of Cincinnati to rethink the MBA curriculum, says Vivek Choudhury, associate dean of graduate programs at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business.

The economy is driving more specialized training, and students and employers see the power of combining associated skills with an MBA degree, Choudhury says.

UC's MBA students now get a graduate certificate in a specialty "” and with a little extra work, an MS degree in that specialty.

It's a different way to approach problem solving, says Bob Dwyer, academic director of MBA programs. "We need to marry that predictive approach with the entrepreneurial flavor."

UC's long tradition of putting business students in the field with large start up companies is a triple win for the community, says Chuck Matthews, executive director of UC's Center for Entrepreneurship. MBAs get practice, businesses get expertise, and the region receives graduates ready to meet economic challenges.

"We are preparing students to start their own businesses, but those same skills are very applicable to going to work in other organizations," Matthews says.

Younger MBAs

Putting management skills in the hands of young professionals can beat the economy. The College of Mount St. Joseph will launch a new 4+1 MBA program in fall 2012, which will target college juniors.

"These graduates will be looking for entry level jobs, but they will be more on a career path to senior management," says Charles Kroncke, the dean of the business division.

"It's a way for them to gain credentials before they enter the job market, and it helps them rise within an organization."

For mid-sized, family-owned and startup companies likely to hire a Mount St. Joe MBA, it means an employee with managerial training the company won't need to pay for.

Here's how it works: Students apply as juniors and take dual-credit classes senior year. After graduation, they complete an internship designed to build essential skills and workplace competencies. Two 12-credit semesters follow, with a keen spotlight on ethical leadership and social responsibility, Kroncke says.

Companies are hungry for that, says Todd Uterstaedt, president and CEO of executive coaching firm Baker & Daboll, and a member of Mount St. Joe's business advisory group.

"More and more, business leaders say they want that MBA knowledge in their employees, and they want people to be able to make ethical and honest decisions," he says.

The approach can strengthen the economy.

"As Cincinnati struggles with keeping young professionals here, I think this is another tool in the box," says Uterstaedt. "It makes it cost effective to keep them."

What does an MBA really need to know? Northern Kentucky University's Haile/US Bank College of Business is on the path to an answer.

Its relaunched MBA program is designed to prepare professionals for the top levels of their workplace, says Dean Rick Kolbe.

"People who will be successful are not going to be specialists; they need to understand the organization as a whole," he says.

The current economy means businesses are collapsing and getting smaller, Kolbe says.

They want executives who can do more.

NKU's MBA is a two-year blended model, with online and on-campus work. Each cohort of 40 students will complete the program together.

Study will range from an initial focus on emotional intelligence, followed by analytics, an applied project, entrepreneurship and a final, major project to integrate strategy and a global perspective.

While every Tristate college's approach varies, everyone is aiming for the same thing: putting smarter workers in place.

"We want people to come out of the program who know what they know and what they don't know," Kolbe says.

"That skill set transcends how a business will change with time." â– 

Andrea Tortora is a business writer with 15 years experience in the Cincinnati market.