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Look to a Business Master's to Build Specialized Skills

A decade ago, Nate Curtis would almost certainly have pursued an MBA as a way to parlay his experience as a spokesman for the chief of naval operations and a passion for rock climbing into a marketing job for an outdoors retail company.

But not today.

The U.S. Navy officer from San Diego, 29, instead chose to enroll last fall in a new focused nine-month master's program in marketing analytics offered by the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.

"It's a totally different game from traditional marketing," says Curtis. "We're getting skills that I wouldn't have gotten in another program." And it requires considerably less time (and money).

Long a fixture in Canada and Europe, one-year specialized master's programs—from older standbys in accounting and finance to ultraniche newcomers like global luxury management—are becoming wildly popular among American business students.

A survey of U.S. institutions accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International revealed that the number of such degrees conferred rose by 52 percent from 2009 to 2013.

B-schools are feeding the flames by rolling out new offerings at a swift clip. Marketing analytics is the fourth introduced by Smith in the last five years; the others are in finance, information systems, and supply chain management. Two more—in general business and entrepreneurship—are in development.

This growth has been a boon to the b-schools' bottom line, as applications to traditional MBA programs have flat-lined in the past decade.

"The population that's normally interested in a full-time MBA is just not showing up," says the University of Iowa's Henry B. Tippie School of Management Dean Sarah Gardial, president of the MBA Roundtable, a group of b-schools focused on curricular innovation. "At the same time, there is enormous interest in these programs. The cost of a full-time MBA is huge. There's a conversation about 'Is it worth the cost?'"

The new programs differ from the MBA in that they immerse students narrowly in one discipline. Unlike MBAs, most M.S. degrees require little or no work experience, a big draw for new graduates trying to get a leg up in the job market.

The degrees are "popular with companies, too," notes John Fernandes, president and chief executive officer of AACSB. Employers can "choose entry-level talent in specific disciplines," and it's "a lot cheaper than MBA grads."

While most students entering these programs are fresh from college, the more technical degrees often lure students like Curtis who are returning for a "deep dive," says Sanjay Gupta, associate dean for MBA and professional master's programs at Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business. He points to Broad's marketing research and supply chain management programs as two that are particularly attractive to people in industry who are seeking a fuller understanding of the functions and "really want to leapfrog."

Accounting was the first master's in business to gain a foothold in the U.S. about a decade ago and remains by far the most popular, largely because the number of credits required for a CPA license has risen from 120 to 150 in many states. Finance followed next at many schools.

Management, too, is seeing lots of interest among b-school deans, thanks to its appeal across disciplines and strong outlook for employment. An art history major who does a fifth year in management could end up running an art gallery, says Ken White, associate dean of Smith's MBA and M.S. programs.

Naturally, schools are leveraging their strengths in specific disciplines. North Carolina State University's Jenkins Graduate School of Management offers a degree in global luxury management with the university's renowned College of Textiles for people who aim to spend their career in the very high-end transportation, hospitality, arts, furniture, and wine and spirits sectors.

Perhaps no curricula are getting more buzz than those that focus on the power of data. Marketing analytics is an example, as is business analytics; essentially, these study how to make better decisions through number-crunching that reveals trends and opportunities.

Not everyone, however, is fully sold on the promise of specialized master's. The greater scope of MBA degrees opens up more options for mobility within an organization, observes Iowa's Gardial.

Gardial also worries that placement of this new breed of graduate is uncharted territory. "They aren't going to have the same kind of placement as an MBA grad who [has] more breadth and work experience, but they deserve something a cut above a new B.S. grad. Is there a gap that these students are filling? It depends on the market."

Accounting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young) is on track to hire approximately 1,000 full-time employees with M.S. degrees in the U.S., up about 10 percent from five years ago. Dan Black, EY's Americas director of recruiting, says that students with M.S. degrees tend to make anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 more than a typical undergraduate hire.

And in a recent Graduate Management Admission Council survey of corporate recruiters, the median salary for finance majors with bachelor's degrees was $52,000, compared with $73,000 for grads with a master's in finance.

Gardial says it all comes down to return on investment. She cautions prospective students to ask schools very pointed questions about placement. What you're looking for, she says, is a track record.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.

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