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Business schools have come a long way

The Wharton School is shown Jan. 12, 2006 in Philadelphia. Collegiate business schools have a come a long way since Joseph Wharton founded the world's first such institution 125 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

PHILADELPHIA --For those who want to study business, there has never been a wider range of choices: Undergraduate or graduate programs? Part-time or full-time? Online or in person? Degree or certificate?

Collegiate business schools have a come a long way since Joseph Wharton founded the world's first such institution 125 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.

Back then, students were served a basic diet of business courses -- accounting, taxation, commerce and currency -- en route to a degree.

But today's expanded educational offerings, which feature flexible schedules and a wider variety of courses, are much richer because the marketplace demands it, experts say.

Meaning business schools have become, well, more like businesses.

"The customer is king," said Terry Connelly, dean of the Ageno School of Business at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "What we're seeing is a response to the consumer, and business schools have two consumers: the student who goes through it and the employer who engages their services."

Some schools now offer "executive" MBA programs designed to allow full-time workers to pursue master's degrees in business administration, usually on nights or weekends; others offer online degrees.

Also popular are "executive education programs" -- classes that offer professional training but not degrees. At Wharton, about 8,000 students are enrolled in those courses, compared with 4,600 in its more traditional undergraduate, MBA and doctoral programs.

Many executive education students already have degrees but are either self-motivated or required by their companies to learn more "to get to the next level," said program director Peter Degnan.

The programs are so popular that Wharton has taken them on the road to India, China and Turkey. And like other top-tiered universities, Wharton has partnered with business schools in Europe and Asia to increase its global presence and offer international learning experiences to its students.

"Business education is a booming industry," said Wharton dean Patrick Harker. "Business is the most powerful force for positive change in the world today."

Business schools also cover a broader range of topics -- from consumer behavior to health care systems and real estate -- than they did when Joseph Wharton first proposed his school to Penn trustees in 1881.

The wider variety in courses is designed to attract more than just would-be investment bankers to business schools, said Ben Baron, vice president of business school programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.

"They're very interested in sending their graduates out to Main Street as well as Wall Street," said Baron, a former assistant admissions officer at Harvard Business School.

Betsy Ludlow, founder of the Slim and Tone chain of fitness clubs, earned her Wharton MBA in 1982. The degree "gave me a level of confidence" and opened doors that otherwise would have been closed to her, said Ludlow.

What the MBA program didn't teach her, she said, was corporate politics. That she had to learn in her pre-Slim and Tone days at American Express Co., where she worked for 18 years.

But not all entrepreneurs feel the need for a degree. Eric Poses, who majored in history at Emory University, developed the popular board game "Loaded Questions" nine years ago and sold it out of the trunk of his car.

Now he's the sole employee of All Things Equal Inc., his company based in Santa Monica, Calif., that earned $1.8 million last year.

"Right now I have a very simple business model that I'm able to manage quite easily," said Poses.

And while he acknowledges that he might have missed out on some networking opportunities by skipping business school, Poses did save a bundle of money: Top-ranked schools easily charge about $40,000 annually for their MBA programs.

Wharton undergrads today pay about $32,000 a year, plus another $9,400 for room and board; tuition for MBA students is more than $42,000 annually.

Some, like 26-year-old MBA candidate Jennifer Manuel, say their Wharton degrees will help them earn it back. Students in Wharton's MBA class of 2005 earned a median base salary of $100,000 right out of school; an undergrad had an average salary of about $54,000.

There's no denying a certain "mystique" surrounds the Wharton pedigree, said Brian Drum, president and CEO of the New York-based executive search firm Drum Associates.

But he added that a degree from any top-tiered business school -- such as Harvard, Stanford or the University of Chicago -- gives its holder an edge in the job application process.

"They go to the top of the pile, no question," said Drum. "The very small percentage that get into these Top 20 schools -- it becomes a natural selection process."

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