Traditional full-time classroom courses. Online programs one can complete on a home computer or with a laptop on the road. Hybrid approaches that combine electronic technology and "face time" interaction with faculty, experienced business people and fellow classmates. Today's MBA student may attend classes at the main campus of a local university, just as in days of yore, or make use of branch campuses and satellite locations established by accredited institutions based anywhere in the U.S.

Before taking the leap, however, potential graduate students should realistically assess the best strategy for gaining the most from the investment of time and money. Talk to local experts on both sides"”graduate school administrators and corporate professionals who recruit, assess and hire talent"”and a consensus emerges:

Yes, an MBA degree carries value in the marketplace. In some corporate hierarchies it's considered an essential credential for advancement.

The fundamentals are assumed. That is, any employer or recruiter expects an MBA grad to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the facets of business administration, such as accounting, finance, human resources, information systems, management and marketing. Most recruiters want an MBA grad who also brings exceptional understanding of at least one specialty area.

Don't expect to lock in an upper-management career track if you went straight into an MBA program after completing an undergraduate degree. Employers want MBA candidates who have some years of relevant work experience, either before or after the MBA is earned.

What students learn in an MBA program means little. What counts today is what they can accomplish with what they've learned.

The most attractive candidates for skybox-level management and executive suites combine learned knowledge with winning personal characteristics.

"The top three characteristics recruiters look for in a job candidate"”strong communication and interpersonal skills, proven ability to perform, and cultural fit with the company"”are so important that if these qualities are lacking in a candidate, the candidate's skills and education will not make up for the deficiency." That's one conclusion from the Graduate Management Admission Council's 2004 global survey of corporate recruiters who hire recent MBA graduates. (More information is available at mba.com.)

Rob Daly, President and CEO of Bluespring Software downtown, is chairman of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association and a founding member of the Fifth Third Bank Entrepreneurship Institute at Northern Kentucky University. In his mind, the MBA degree is most valuable when it's combined with work experience and the right timing.

"Somone who has the graduate degree that flows right from the undergraduate degree, well, that doesn't turn my head," he explains, noting that too many parents push their kids into graduate work too soon. "The person who has gotten some work experience in between, that to me is more powerful. It tells you the person is not just continuing on the college dole. That MBA is much more value-added."

Two engineers who work for Daly are enrolled in MBA programs, one at the University of Cincinnati, the other at Xavier University. Both are working on case projects that apply both to their work at Bluespring and to their graduate studies.

Daly also has a son-in-law who is balancing a demanding job, fatherhood and the MBA program at Xavier University. Those kinds of MBA students demonstrate the kind of drive and ability to manage demanding responsibilities that employers want most. "One of the things that's clear over time is that for someone who earns a graduate degree under challenging circumstances, the confidence level goes through the roof, regardless of the material learned or enhanced conceptual skills," he adds.

Graduates who think the MBA entitles them to prime management or executive positions, or a big promotion, or a guaranteed path to the top office in a company"”time for a reality check. "Kids who believe that spend too much time reading crap," Daly comments.

Corporate encouragement

Do local corporations encourage promising employees to get an MBA? Policies and practices vary. Most large companies offer some level of tuition reimbursement, with conditions. The employer may stipulate the type of program or courses taken, may adjust reimbursements to the grades achieved, and may require a commitment to stay with the company for a minimum period.

Deborah Battista is manager of talent acquisition and development for Cinergy Corp. The company's Navigator leadership-development program is available to recently graduated MBAs and to current Cinergy MBA employees, and recruits from big schools. It involves a two to three-year program with rotational assignments in one or all of Cinergy's business units. Battista says Cinergy is changing from a push to a pull mentality on recruiting: instead of human resources evaluating and selecting candidates to push into management, executives and managers are becoming more involved in pulling the candidates they want into their departments.

She still encounters professionals who assume that the MBA degree alone is a ticket to upper management. "That attitude is still there. Amazing how that hasn't changed," she remarks.

Battista always advises candidates to work a while before going for the MBA. "The lessons don't stick unless you've actually worked to put theory into practice."

A local obstacle to corporate advancement is not the quantity or quality of graduate business programs, she says, but employees' unwillingness to leave Cincinnati. More large companies want MBA grads to possess certain qualities: creativity, and the willingness to relocate to different locations"”geographical and within the company"”to gain a variety of experiences. "The days of staying in one area and hoping to be the leader are almost nil."

Dr. Rebecca White is Director of the Fifth Third Bank Entrepreneurship Institute at Northern Kentucky University. In an age when colleges and corporations are driven to be results-oriented, they both want to see MBA graduates who deliver positive outcomes.

The best MBA candidates, White observes, are those who are creative self-starters and possess high emotional intelligence. "Students have to think broadly, creatively, innovatively and strategically," she adds.

William Cunningham earned his MBA from the prestigious Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College. He's been involved in teaching or advising in graduate and entrepreneur programs at Xavier and NKU, and as an incubator consultant has contributed to several business startups.

MBA programs have changed to deliver more of what students need to meet employer's expectations, Cunningham says. Some over-achievers just want to get in the MBA track and get it over with. "Twenty years ago you could get away with that MBA prima donna stuff. Today it may get you in the door or get the interview, but now you have to deliver."

He points out that now there are more than 400,000 MBA grads in the workforce. It may be a requisite ticket to corporate advancement or entrepreneurial success, but it guarantees nothing. "As my father said, it's a learner's permit, not a driver's license."