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Biz School Targets Valley Grads

When Sumantra Sengupta was hired to direct the MBA programs at California Lutheran University School of Management, he had a specific approach in mind.   “Academia is a business, whether we like to admit it or not,” he said. “I look at it as, ‘What’s the value that we are delivering?’” The cost to enroll full-time in the university’s general MBA program starts at $36,000, or $800 per credit unit; base tuition for one of six specialized MBA degrees is $38,400. Executives who have held management roles for at least five years qualify for admission into Cal Lutheran’s “experienced professional” MBA program, a $44,000, 18-month curriculum devoted to organizational leadership. Though cheaper than similar options offered by Pepperdine University in Malibu and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, both of which charge about twice as much for a general MBA, Cal Lutheran’s programs are still more costly than those of neighboring state school California State University – Northridge, where an MBA costs about $26,000 for state residents. To recruit students from the San Fernando Valley, long the primary recruiting territory for CSUN’s Nazarian College of Business, Sengupta will have to convince prospects that his programs offer a greater return on investment. “We’re competitive, and we do compete with Cal State,” he said. “Competition is good.” Bang for buck Rivalry with a well-rooted neighbor isn’t the only headwind Sengupta faces as he markets his programs. While MBAs remain the most popular graduate degree in the nation, they are no longer necessarily considered the “golden ticket” to business success. “The MBA overall … is not as cool as it was 10 years ago,” Sengupta said. “It’s not commoditized yet, but it’s not as rare as it used to be.” Born at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1881, the degree was designed to offer a scientific approach to educating company leaders. Its popularity rose quickly, with 58,000 MBAs conferred the year of its centennial anniversary in 1981, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. MBA recipients have made up about a quarter of all U.S. master’s graduates since 2008. Yet in recent years all the most prestigious schools have seen a decline in application volume, a trend driven by changes in the global economy and negative perception of the finance industry following the Great Recession. About 43 percent of the country’s full-time MBA programs reported year-over-year application growth in 2016, down from a high of 61 percent in 2014, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. Cal Lutheran has suffered less than most schools in terms of declining enrollment, Sengupta said, but staying ahead will require that the investment appeals to a larger swath of prospective students. To that end, he has spent his first eight months at Cal Lutheran streamlining the school’s portfolio of MBA programs. “Before we had separate online programs, an international MBA, an MBA for domestic students and several others,” he said. “Now we have two products: We have an MBA, and we have an MBA for experienced professionals.” Sengupta also has revisited the substance of each offering, adjusting the programs to meet his benchmarks for quality on four pillars: curriculum, faculty, corporate connections and networking opportunities. The first objective means students can expect more rigorous, comprehensive courses than were offered in the past, he said. “If you specialize in finance, for example, we’re going to make sure you walk out of Cal Lutheran knowing everything about finance,” Sengupta explained. The extra work will be well-rewarded for graduates who choose to apply for local positions, according to Tony Uyehara, regional vice president for the management resources division of Robert Half Inc. in Westlake Village. “The clients that we work with … are going to look at how someone can convey their education in conversation, how they can relay their analytical skill set and their business acumen,” he said. “How they communicate will speak to how they were prepared by their MBA program.” Sengupta believes practitioners are the most effective vehicle for passing on knowledge to future business leaders. He has increased the number of adjunct professors by 10 percent since his tenure began, including start-up veteran Victoria Silchenko and former KPMG consultant David Church. “Our industry-embedded faculty is some of the best of the best in their fields,” Sengupta said. They are complimented by additions with experience in the research realm, such as entrepreneurship expert Bill Gartner. Hiring top talent was crucial for attracting top talent, especially in the case of the school’s experienced professional MBA. Launched in 2015, the program’s inaugural cohort includes some key figures at visible companies. “We have a couple CEOs and senior execs from Amgen, Disney and Verizon who are students,” he said. “We’re paying a lot of attention to that program.” Corporate networking To ensure work for graduates in the job market, Sengupta spends about half his workday networking with corporations. Already the efforts have opened doors at local banks, which were eager to recruit students who would remain in the region. “I’ve recently done deals with banks that had been recruiting with UCLA and Pepperdine, and while they found they could recruit those students, they weren’t able to retain them,” Sengupta said. “Our students have a different DNA – they don’t just want to come in, learn the trade and go to L.A. They like to stay.” Choosing employees with the right cultural fit is a key part of the recruiting game, noted Jamie Belinne, president of the board at MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance in Tampa, Fla. “Some graduates from some schools may just be a better cultural fit for some companies, and they may see that the retention of those graduates is higher,” she said. Once a school is able to get one student through the doors of a company, establishing a relationship with the organization becomes substantially easier, she added. If all goes to plan, Cal Lutheran MBAs will be well-positioned for employment at other big-name companies in the Valley, such as Cheesecake Factory Inc., Sengupta said. He anticipates that corporations will see that the program includes all the right ingredients to produce exceptional leaders. “When you look at these building blocks, they’re there,” he said. “Some have to be polished and tweaked, but I spend a lot of time making sure the base building blocks are available.” Valley marketing Sengupta will have to wait a few more years before he knows whether his plan to increase the perceived value of a Cal Lutheran MBA will work. “I’ve told the dean and associate dean, don’t tell me we’ve already designed the best thing – I’ll tell you once the market tells me it’s the best thing,” he said. Until then, Sengupta will focus on convincing prospective students in the San Fernando Valley, who might be tempted by the strong reputation and low cost of a CSUN MBA, to give his programs a shot. “We are going to do focused events in the Valley, which we weren’t doing before,” he explained. The school had previously limited outreach to Thousand Oaks and few events in Oxnard. Now that the Cal Lutheran will be making use of its Chatsworth campus to conduct courses for its general MBA, Sengupta expects more Valley students will be willing to take the plunge. The option to take some classes online will help as well, he said. “I’ve got a program where if you come to me and say, ‘I really don’t want to go to Thousand Oaks, it’s over the hill,’ you can graduate within the same time frame by going just to Woodland Hills and taking online classes,” he said. “I need to get the Valley conditioned to the fact that they don’t have to come to Thousand Oaks for our general MBA.” Deborah Heisley, director of graduate programs at Nazarian College of Business, is confident that Cal Lutheran’s recruitment efforts in the San Fernando Valley will have a negligible effect on CSUN’s ability to attract students. “The rigor of our program is really demonstrated with the awards and acknowledgements (we’ve received),” she said. “I think people just feel really comfortable coming here. … This is an established, quality, accessible, diverse program.” Besides the usual struggles associated with introducing a product to a new market, Sengupta may also face questions about the school’s accreditation. While the university itself is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, its business school has not yet been certified by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, though it is a member. Most employers prefer to recruit from schools that are known to meet the standards set forth by the AACSB, Belinne said. “Recruiters probably don’t spend their days Googling the AACSB accreditation list, but it is one of those things that legitimizes the degree,” she explained. “The AACSB really is the premier accrediting body for business schools, as the accreditation process is very intense.” In response to the Journal’s question about whether it plans to pursue AACSB accreditation in the future, Cal Lutheran said it routinely reviews the matter but has so far found that the disadvantages of doing so outweigh the benefits. “We also take note of the fact that some local schools that have achieved the accreditation have demonstrated minimal to no competitive advantage as it pertains to the Program or the students graduating from the program,” Cal Lutheran said in a prepared statement. Sengupta expects Cal Lutheran will soon be joined by other universities, such as Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, in vying for CSUN’s students. “There are a lot of people that are looking at the Valley, saying, ‘Why should Cal State have full right to the Valley?’” he said. But when the choice comes down to Cal Lutheran or CSUN, prospective students who hope to stay in the region after graduating have little to worry about: Local companies hold both business schools in high regard, Uyehara noted. “CSUN, Cal Lutheran – they both have excellent reputations with local employers,” he said. “People at all the large companies know how tough those programs are. They know how selective they are. Those degrees are going to be highly valued in the local market.”

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