STEM MBAs: Substance or Superficial?

Article By : Bill Schweber

So what does STEM MBA mean, and is it really meaningful or not?

Recently. Some graduate-level business schools have begun offering what they call “STEM Certification” as part of their masters-degree programs. According to articles in The Wall Street Journal, these schools are rushing to offer what are called STEM-designated MBA degrees (see References). One article noted, “Several schools, including Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, have unveiled STEM-designated master’s in business degrees in recent months. The University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business recently reclassified its entire M.B.A. program as STEM.”

So, what does this mean, and is it really meaningful or not? First, let’s start with basics: STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and math.” Yet looking at the details of these so-called STEM MBAs, the focus is on business analytics and management science, with little S, T, or E. Still, about one-quarter of the roughly 800 U.S. business-school programs tracked by the Graduate Management Admission Council in 2019 reported themselves as STEM-certified.

Why are they doing this? In a word, STEM is “hot”, and schools say they are going where the students (and prospective) employers want them to go; thus, this emphasis on “hard” skills, and that’s probably good. But there is another undeniable reason: the shrinking number of applicants and enrollees in their programs. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of accredited full-time M.B.A. programs in the U.S. shrank 9% to 1,189 as many universities closed their MBA schools and terminated the programs. Even top-tier schools such as Harvard and Stanford have reported a decline in applications.Source: Morguefile

There are apparently many reasons for the decline in students. Administrators say millennials, burdened with more college debt than previous generations, have grown increasingly reluctant to leave or forestall jobs for a year or more to pursue one these pricy degrees. Further, in a strong job market, many prospective students think it’s better to get a job and earn money rather than go into debt, and still pursue further education part-time, online, or by other means rather than go full time and high cost. Adding STEM also makes the programs appear more valuable to non-US based foreign students.

But here’s my concern: it’s one thing to say, “I’ve got STEM” and it’s another thing to be reasonably fluent in it. I suspect that many of these so-called STEM MBAs won’t know the difference between “energy” and “power,” to cite one ubiquitous pair of linked, yet very different parameters. I don’t know which is worse: that these graduates will know enough to be dangerous, smoothly using terms and phrases that they don’t really understand. Or will they think they really do understand the nuances of science, technology, and engineering with its inevitable constraints, tradeoffs, and realities defined at their core by the laws of physics?

Over the years I have met many supposedly “science literate” people who could speak and spell technical terms and even provide their formal definition, yet really had no idea of what they meant – but thought they did. Some were merely annoying, as they glibly segued into and out of a conversation or meeting without having to ask what something as basic as a “relay” was.

Still, they were easily fooled, and as often said foolish things. Let’s be honest: many words we routinely use have different meanings, and you have to understand the context. The innocuous word “buffer” has many legitimate meanings (how many can you come up with?) and can even take on two or three of them in the same discussion. That’s not a problem if you really are an engineer, but it can be as misleading as translating a sentence in a foreign language word-by-word, getting every word right and the total sentence wrong (again, you can provide your own examples, I’m sure).

In many ways, I think the so-called STEM MBA is just a fancified version of those courses you see offered on TV and elsewhere that promise to make you a “coder” in as little as four months, and soon earn the big salary. I have no doubt that for many who take those classes, it’s a good way to get on the first rung of a ladder that can lead to a better job – even though they are coming in at bottom of the “IT/coding/programming” pyramid. In contrast, I suspect that many of these STEM MBA graduates will think they can go enter at the top, since they have that veneer of a master’s level degree with just enough fluency to sound credible. Their actual understanding may be a mile wide and an inch deep, as the cliché goes. I’d feel more comfortable with someone who has taken a year or two of STEM courses with a hands-on component at a local community college.

What’s your view on this trend of adding STEM certification to an MBA? Is it meaningful or is it just a trendy add-on which demeans and perhaps insults those who have genuine science, technology, and engineering training and experience, formal or otherwise? Finally, are there basic questions which you ask someone who claims STEM expertise to quickly gauge how deep or shallow their understanding really is?

References (may be behind a paywall, sorry)

The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020 “M.B.A. Programs Rush to Add STEM Degrees

The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2019 “More Universities Shut Down Traditional M.B.A. Programs as Popularity Wanes

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