News & Events

MBA Students on the Road to Success

By Michael Lovell

On a recent sunny Saturday morning, while thousands of Des Moines residents were strolling through parks or finding other ways to enjoy the day, a small band of students was having a different experience altogether.

Seated in a room in the W.A. Krause Center near the corner of 63rd Street and Grand Avenue in Des Moines, the group alternated between humor, seriousness and confusion as they plowed through a difficult three-hour session that focused on calculating the value of futures contracts and stock options.

The 21 students, representing the first class for the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business's Executive MBA program in Des Moines, are seated in the first three rows of the room.

In some ways, the classroom is no different than any other. Backpacks and other types of bags lie on the floor. Some students lean back in their seats and others slouch. Many quietly carry on brief conversations while the teacher is talking. Papers are strewn across the tables.

Other observations, however, show these aren't ordinary students.

All of them have laptop computers plugged in to high-speed Internet connections. They are learning about relatively sophisticated financial techniques. And then there is their professional station in life: all are mid- to high-level executives at some of Central Iowa's biggest companies, including Principal Financial Group Inc. and Sauer-Danfoss Inc. Some are physicians. Two work for non-profit agencies.

"The whole class learns a tremendous amount from one another," said John Fraser, the program's executive director. "That's the dynamic you have when you have older students combined with faculty who have the experience to facilitate these conversations and love being challenged."

The Des Moines program started in January at a furious pace. The students, who stay as one class for the duration of the program, started with two of the toughest and most time-consuming classes Tippie requires: accounting and statistics.

Faced with 20-hour to 30-hour workloads from class assignments alone, three students dropped out within the first few weeks.

"The workload exceeded anything I had budgeted in my schedule," said Robert Brown, a physician and surgeon at the Iowa Clinic.

Brown and the others who remained buckled down and soldiered through. Most say they survived those initial months, and indeed continue to succeed, because of the help they get from other members of their group.

The group structure is one of the core tenets of the Tippie program. Groups consist of four or five members and are assembled based on individual backgrounds and other factors, including how far each member lives from one another so that study sessions are as convenient as possible. The students don't have any say in which group they belong to. Fraser makes those decisions.

"Their greatest challenge is going to be balancing their lives: their business lives, their personal lives and their academic lives," said Fraser, who also heads Iowa's Executive M.B.A. program in Iowa City as well as another program that offers students dual master's degrees in engineering and business administration.

"The only way they are going to survive is with group cohesion," he said. "It's very likely that no one would survive the process by themselves."

Because they are the flagship class, Fraser closely monitors students' performance, as well as their needs and their overall experience. The current Des Moines class will graduate in December 2004.

The Executive MBA program has been available in Iowa City for more than two decades. The required coursework takes 21 months to complete. Classes meet once a week, alternating Fridays and Saturdays.

Other Midwest schools offering executive MBA programs include Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Washington University's John M. Olin School of Business and Purdue University's Krannert School of Management.

Iowa's program hasn't yet attracted as many students as the school would like. Last year, as Iowa was recruiting its first class, University of Iowa College of Business Dean Gary Fethke told the Business Record that the program needed 35 students "at the minimum."

Part of the reason for the shortfall is the number of women who have enrolled. There are two in the current program, far less than the program's leaders had hoped for.

"We were disappointed with the smaller percentage of women that we ended up with in Des Moines class," he said. Fraser said that women make up nearly a third of the typical Executive MBA class in Iowa City. Fraser said he hasn't yet decided when the next Executive MBA class will begin in Des Moines.

The program is upscale and works to meet as many needs as possible - a recognition that these students tend to have demanding professional lives. In class, freshly cut vegetables, cookies, coffee and soft drinks chilled in ice are available in the back of the room.

The convenience goes behind in-class perks. Books are handed out at the start of each new semester, along with reading packets. Next spring, the class will spend a week in Brazil studying international business and a foreign culture. Every facet of the trip will be taken care of for them.

The perks aren't free and are a big part of the reason the Executive M.B.A., which costs $47,000, is the most expensive of the three MBA programs Iowa offers. The school also offers a full-time program in Iowa City that was recently ranked 29th in the nation, and it offers an evening M.B.A. program for working students in Des Moines, Newton, Cedar Rapids, the Quad Cities and in Iowa City.

For the Des Moines Executive MBA students, weekly lunches are held at any one of a handful of Des Moines area restaurants. On one recent Saturday, the group ate at Jimmy's American Café. Meals are ordered in advance to save time. The food is ready when the students arrive.

At the table, some members discuss what they were just learning. Others are busy eating with one hand and holding the afternoon's reading assignment in the other. The class day is broken roughly in half, with one class in the morning and the second in the afternoon.

On this afternoon, the group has a human resources management class. It tends to involve more discussion than the finance class they had in the morning. But the discussion is based on the reading, and some members had misunderstood the assignment. They read quickly to catch up. For some, being back in school takes getting used to.

This is the case for 51-year-old Brian Farrell, who is the chief executive at Bishop Drumm Care Center, which is affiliated with Mercy Medical Center. Farrell said he had always wanted to earn an advanced business degree, but until now, other priorities had come first, including helping raise a family. His children are nearly grown, but finding time for class work is still a considerable challenge.

"It's been 17 years since I've been in a college-level class," he said.

There is one married couple in the program, Carlos and Andria Macias-Castillo. They have one advantage over their classmates: Each understands the pressure and the time commitment required to succeed.

However, they are also unique in that they both work for non-profit organizations and they are paying for the program themselves. Most of the other students have a significant portion of their tuition picked up by their employers, who tend to view the training as part of leadership development, Fraser said.

Carlos is a special populations access coordinator for the Iowa Department of Public Health. Andria is the executive director of Hispanic Educational Resources Inc. Both of them want the business degree to give them better skills to help Des Moines' ethnic minorities.

They choose the Executive MBA, despite its cost, because they would earn the degree quickly. It would also let them continue to work full time.

"The work we do is so valuable," Andria said.


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