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Sagario: Get MBA for Right Reasons, Experts Advise

The key is knowing how the degree can advance a career or improve skills.

An engineering degree gave Dwight Brown the technical skills that help him create the newest cars coming off the line at General Motors.

But an MBA helps him with the business side of his job, in product development. Brown, 25, melds his engineering and marketing knowledge to build the cars that customers want.

"I wanted to get an MBA because I hoped it would broaden my understanding of why corporations do the things they do, and understand the business reasons for taking the projects that they take," said Brown, who earned an MBA degree from the University of Iowa this year. He started with General Motors full-time in June, but previously worked with the company through a co-op program as an undergrad at Iowa State University.

While the MBA path has worked for the former Iowan, it's not for everybody, he said. A full-time program means giving up two years of your life, being saddled with school debt and losing out on job income.

And that's the rub: Is all that time, money and commitment really worth it? And how much of an edge does it provide in the job market?

Getting an MBA for a bigger paycheck, to delay getting a job or doing it because you don't know what you want to be when you grow up are all bad reasons to do it, officials from two Iowa universities said.

So what are the right ones?

"If you can understand how an MBA is going to contribute to your skill set and advance your career, then it's certainly appropriate to consider an MBA," said Mark Peterson, director of graduate business career services at Iowa State University.

Nationwide, applications and enrollment in full-time MBA programs are down, said Gary Gaeth , associate dean of the school of management at the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business.

Gaeth said some schools are seeing as much as a 25 percent to 35 percent slump. While the slowdown hasn't been as substantial for Iowa's program, it still saw a 15 percent dip in enrollment this year compared with last year.

Two factors could be affecting these programs, Gaeth said. First, the number of 25- to 30-year-olds - the typical age range for full-time MBA students - in the general population is small. Second, some are hesitant to quit their job and take the risk that the economy won't be in the can when they get out of school in two years.

So who is this program for? Someone wanting to "radically jumpstart their career," Gaeth said.

While the U of I's full-time program enrollment has decreased, the part-time programs are leveling off after seeing a slowdown. Programs like the MBA PM evening program for professionals and managers have seen a nationwide increase in the past seven years, he said. Following this track helps people advance in their chosen career paths to tweak their skills in areas like communication and negotiation.

Gaeth said interest in the part-time executive MBA program - which helps middle managers move on to become executives - has been similar.

The popularity of MBAs seems to be influenced by the economy and current events, Peterson said. In a tough economy, companies cut education reimbursements and hire workers with bachelor's degrees for less. Also, the student visa process for international students has become more challenging the past couple of years, affecting enrollment, he said.

Despite a rough economy, there are companies who previously have never recruited MBA students that are now seeking them out, Peterson said. Employers are attracted to these graduates because they are able to make quicker decisions with less information available to them.

Still, the graduate degree isn't for everybody. Peterson said he's seen record numbers of graduating seniors in the past couple years looking at the MBA as a way to delay looking for work in a tight job market.

"In most cases, that's not the best idea," he said. Most employers like to see about four to eight years of work experience before getting an MBA.

Also, don't think an MBA will help you figure out what you want to be when you grow up, he said.

"If someone is going to pay an MBA salary, they want someone who knows who they are, where they're going and how an MBA will help them get there."

Mark Hagenberg saw an MBA as a tool to achieve several goals. The 27-year-old was working as a graphic designer for educational publisher Perfection Learning in Des Moines when he decided to enroll in Iowa State's full-time MBA program in August 2002.

"I enjoy graphic design, but I also wanted to have a broader set of skills, greater responsibility, more interpersonal interaction in the workplace and a more challenging position in the company," Hagenberg said. He also previously owned a small design business, and wanted to learn more about general business administration.

Hagenberg worked part-time at the same company while getting his degree, which he received in August 2004. Now he's back to work full-time, with increased responsibility and, he said, a better understanding of the "strategic elements of publishing." In addition to graphic design, he's now the books product manager.

While the program was very challenging and flexible, he said, it also required a substantial amount of time and financial commitment. "Do it only if you have a strong desire to learn the material, not if you're just seeing a pay raise."

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