MBA Programs Find Their Niche

The MBA has traditionally been known as a general management degree, but that’s starting to change as students look to get an edge in a more competitive job market. Increasingly, students are pushing aside the bread-and-butter MBA degree in favor of one with a unique specialization, like aviation or football. Some of the more recent programs to hit the management education world include a new Wine MBA introduced by Sonoma State University in California and an MBA degree with an energy focus offered by the University of Oklahoma’s Price College of Business. Even the funeral industry has gotten in on the trend: The University of Barcelona and the European Federation of Funeral Services introduced a two-year MBA designed for undertakers last year.

The shift comes as business schools are attempting to differentiate themselves in a crowded MBA marketplace, says Jan Williams, board chairman of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The number of general business MBA programs worldwide has declined about 2 percent in the past five years, based on a controlled set of 419 surveyed schools, according to AACSB data. At the same time, the number of specialized MBA programs has risen 11 percent, from 92 to 102, based on the same controlled set of respondents. Williams calls the jump a “fairly dramatic increase.”

One reason niche programs are becoming more popular is they can help fast-track a student’s career in a specialized industry, Williams says. For example, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Business sends many students to internships at Boeing, while the University of Nevada at Reno’s gaming management program has ties to casinos such as Foxwoods and Caesars. Niche programs also help expand a student’s understanding of an industry through classes and case studies that look at business problems from the perspective of that sector.

“Schools are trying ways to differentiate themselves, because there are hundreds of MBA programs out there,” says Williams, who is also dean of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s College of Business Administration, which offers several niche MBA programs, including one focusing on aerospace and defense. “If you can take some portion of your program that specializes in an area students can’t get anywhere else, you make your program more attractive.”

The following are some of the more innovative MBA specializations offered by schools in the U.S. and Europe. Click through to learn more about each program’s focus, curriculum, and placement trends.

Photo Illustration by Will Halsey, Photography by Getty Images.

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