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Mini MBA programs benefit mid-career leaders - in uniform or out

Mar. 27, 2012 - 02:44PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 27, 2012 - 02:44PM  |  
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Your dad always warned you about cutting corners, but a new trend in mini graduate programs may call that advice into question, at least when it comes to higher education.

Future titans of industry, for example, long have had to develop their business superpowers through the hard work of earning a Master of Business Administration degree. There's no denying an MBA can provide a critical leg up both to veterans just starting off in the business world and those still in the military who need advanced education to stay competitive for promotion.

But business school degrees don't come cheap — tuition alone can top well over $100,000 — and most are at least two years long for full-time students.

Mini MBA

Marine Lt. Col. Christian Veeris didn't have that kind of time. He landed a job with a defense contractor when he retired from the Corps in 2010, but the intelligence officer found his new position too stuffy.

"One of the big challenges for us military guys is that we have the tools, but we don't know how to put it all together and speak the language of business," Veeris says. He figured an MBA was his best bet, but the demands of the new civilian career meant going to school full time was out of the question.

That's when he found out about a new "executive program" at UCLA's Anderson School of Business, unofficially dubbed the "MBA Lite." (It's not to be confused with an "executive MBA," which is a full MBA program — just taught around executive schedules.) The tuition for Anderson's short course was $17,000, and it was only six months long, meeting in the evenings once a week and for periodic immersion weekends.

"When you look at the curriculum, it's basically the same as the full MBA program, but they condense it down into what you really need to know," Veeris says. And because UCLA was among the first to get its program cleared by Veterans Affairs Department, "the icing on the cake was that my GI Bill paid for every penny."

Compounding interest

"There has been renewed interest in these programs because the full costs of a two-year MBA program are quite high and because these mini-MBA courses are far more compressed than before," says John Byrne, former executive editor of Bloomberg Businessweek who now edits a blog about business schools called PoetsandQuants.com.

"They're also easier to get into than a traditional MBA program, so the acceptance rates for applicants to these general management exec-ed programs are very high compared to full-time MBA programs," Byrne says.

With tuition running into the tens of thousands, it still isn't cheap, "but it's a lot less expensive than having to give up nearly two years' worth of income to attend a traditional MBA program," he says. "The cost of attending Harvard's traditional program is about $170,000 once you include room and board, and that doesn't include your lost income."

His advice: Get into the best possible school you can. "Brand counts," he says. "The better the brand, the more valuable the program will be. It doesn't necessarily mean that the content or the quality of the teaching will be much better, but it will put more boost in your résumé to have gone to a top-20 business school program."

That was exactly what Veeris found.

Opened doors

"Just the UCLA name and Anderson School of Business absolutely opened new doors for me," Veeris says.

The program itself was packed with just the kind of fluency-building training he was hoping for.

"This MBA Lite put it all together for me," he says. He was glad to learn, for example, how much his background in the military and in intelligence work, in particular, applied to marketing and strategic business planning.

"Marketing is basically all about collecting intelligence faster than the other guy so that you can get your products out there faster than your competition," he says.

The mini programs don't offer full MBA degrees, and many don't even count as credit toward a degree, but they typically do offer some kind of certificate in business management. More important for Veeris was access to UCLA's alumni network after graduating. Within weeks he'd been offered three jobs, all of which he attributes directly to getting his "mini MBA." He accepted one and is enjoying life in a new job with defense contractor Physical Optics Corp. in Torrance, Calif.

As chance would have it, one of his classmates was another Marine, in a much different place in his career, but also with tangible benefits from taking the course.

Setting the stage

An active-duty reservist who runs the Corps' Marine for Life transition program in California, Maj. John Gutierrez still has several years before he's eligible for military retirement and needs to show that his civilian education is progressing to stay competitive for promotion.

He was already working on his full MBA, but thought, "Here's a way for me to really see how interested I am." Plus, with two young kids at home, he says, "I was just trying to find the time."

Although he figured there would be plenty of practical benefits to taking the course in his military career, his own post-military plans made it just as big a draw.

His brother is a physical therapist, and his sister works with kids who have autism. "Ultimately, we'd like to put together some kind of clinic, and I'd like to be the one who runs the shop. This was perfect for setting the stage for that," he says.

"This probably isn't the right program for a young person transitioning out of the military because so much of the coursework draws from your own personal military experience. But for senior NCOs and midlevel officers, it's a great option."

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