US Online MBA Programs Rush for STEM Certification

MBA course administrators are revamping the curriculum to boost students’ job prospects and bring visa benefits

“STEM designation” have become a buzzwords at business schools across the US,  which are rushing to achieve a special certification and prepare their students to work in increasingly data-driven business environments. MBA course administrators receive the STEM designation when they prove that more than half their course material is based in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

While the trend mostly centered on traditional, in-person MBA programs — because of visa benefits for full-time students — many schools are now seeking certification for their entire suite of MBA courses, including their Online MBA programs. 

Such a certification can be a big draw for prospective students, not least because it significantly boosts their employment prospects. For overseas students, there are ever bigger rewards.

International students benefit greatly from a STEM education, because the designation comes with up to 36 months of optional practical training (OPT) — temporary employment on an F-1 student visa, compared to 12 months for non-STEM degrees. That means students on STEM courses can work in the US for longer without permanent work authorization, and gain valuable skills.

But most Online MBA students won’t be able to access these benefits. That’s because F-1 visa students are studying full-time in the US, whereas most Online participants are studying part-time alongside a full-time job.

“The STEM designation benefits for the Online MBAs center around the professional preparation, gaining the analytical expertise and confidence in making complex, data-driven business decisions,” says Emily Archambeault, director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Even with a STEM certification, overseas students only benefit from the visa extension if they are hired into a STEM-designated role, limiting career opportunity on the OPT scheme.

Still, Tepper’s STEM designation is a reflection of the school’s analytical curriculum and integration of scientific methods into problem-solving. “Throughout the core curriculum, all Tepper MBA students master analytical tools that are critical for tackling complicated business challenges,” says Archambeault.  

In the Carnegie Mellon Online MBA program, most students also work locally in the US, instead of coming from overseas. Yet the designation is valuable for domestic students, and reflects a belief in business education that STEM skills better prepare graduates for an age of digitization and robotics.

Needed: data-driven leaders

Brad Staats, associate dean of MBA programs at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business Schools, says that math and analytical knowledge prepare students with the skills to make the strategic, data-driven decisions required of business leaders in the 21st century.

The four MBA programs at UNC — including the school’s Online MBA — received STEM designation this year. “This change reflects the analytical rigor of our MBA programs, which have long developed business leaders,” says Staats. “Our students graduate with the skills valued by employers and needed for long-term career success.”

Certainly, employer demand is high. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that demand for STEM jobs will grow by 13 percent by 2027, with high wages. The national average for STEM salaries is $87,570, double the average for non-STEM jobs.

The Online MBA program at W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University was STEM-designated in 2020. The dean, Amy Hillman, says the designation reflects the growing worldwide demand for analytical thinkers in the workforce.

“As companies and our business partners rely more on analytics, we evolved our programs to stay future-oriented, making sure our students graduate with the technical skills employers need,” she says.

An MBA with STEM designation provides students with rigorous training in areas such as data analytics, business modeling, information systems, and managerial economics. These concepts, along with the ability to parse and analyze data for making better and more effective business decisions, are paramount as today’s businesses navigate the digital revolution.  

“Data and analytics are dramatically changing our business environment,” says Matthew Myers, dean of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, which received STEM certification this year. “With this designation, we’re giving our students a competitive edge and preparing them for the future.”

The Cox School began teaching a revised curriculum, the NextGen Curriculum, this academic year to align with the business community’s increased emphasis on data and analytics.

“Leveraging data and analytics to solve complex, unstructured business problems is an important topic in the C-suite and boardrooms,” says Shane Goodwin, associate dean for executive education and graduate programs. “We focus on experiential learning to develop well-rounded business leaders who are innovative, entrepreneurial, analytically-skilled and able to leverage technology to solve complex business issues.”

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