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How To Build an MBA From the Ground Up

From an academic perspective, Kevin Quinn (Schneider School) is like a teenager with a new car. The veteran St. Norbert College business professor has enjoyed a rare opportunity over the past few years to build a graduate studies program from scratch. Now the Master of Business Administration program that he and his team have crafted is about to hit the road in high gear under the aegis of the new Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics. 

“At some point, the plane is ready to fly and you have to have confidence that it will fly,” says Quinn, who will welcome the first group of students in August. “I feel fortunate that I get to be part of something that has all the pieces put together to be successful and worth people’s time.”

With the help of a $7 million gift from Pat Schneider, wife of the late Schneider National CEO Donald Schneider ’57, the MBA program’s launch caps years of planning, focus groups, discussions with regional business leaders and internal conversation that stretches back decades.

“I can tell you from spending time in the business community that St. Norbert’s reputation is outstanding,” Quinn says. “We have some kind of magic sauce here and our students are sought after. Our sense of communio helps students understand this is a good way to live your life; that there is something bigger than you when you’re working for a company.”

Putting together the Schneider MBA program was akin to constructing a giant, academic jigsaw puzzle from many interlocking pieces: component parts that range from a context and a mission-driven focus with which to frame the program, to a place to physically house it; from the nurturing of the existing network of relationships between the school and the regional business community, to the hiring of a recruiter for the new offering; from a marketing plan to get the word out, to student services … everything that’s necessary to complete the picture.

New programs don’t just spring up without significant financial resources. About $800,000 of the Schneider gift offsets start-up costs such as hiring staff, marketing the program and providing for miscellaneous expenses aplenty: things like market research and student orientation materials, signage and student business cards: elements that all contribute to the complete experience. “It adds up, and this would be money that would have to come from elsewhere in the college budget if not for this gift,” Quinn says. “The rest of the gift will go into an endowment, which removes the risk that any resources will be diverted from the rest of the college.”

While Quinn expects the program to be self-sustaining, he notes that revenue generation is not the first purpose of the initiative: “The primary goal is to enhance and advance the academic reputation of St. Norbert College, and further the mission of the college in terms of its contributions to this community.”

The program’s focus on a strong business core mirrors the philosophy of the college’s established undergraduate business education structure. “We believe everybody should have a shared understanding before they explore different topics of business,” Quinn explains. “We’re not looking to create supply-chain experts in six hours. They need a solid base of business expertise with both soft skills and hard skills.”

Students are expected to arrive with at least a working knowledge of statistics, finance and accounting principles in order to minimize repeats of undergraduate course work. Those with advanced knowledge will be in a position to help their fellow students in a collaborative learning environment.

“This type of teamwork is an important part of what our students get out of this program,” Quinn says. “It’s not just the pearls of wisdom that drip from the mouths of professors.”

Electives will be focused and topical, with subject matter reflecting fields that students and the business community see as most valuable. Health care and supply chain are highlighted, due to the concentration of those industries in northeast Wisconsin.

Classes will convene on the third floor of Cofrin Hall under signage for the Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics. “The Norbertines teach us the importance of sense of place, and Cofrin Hall will be for the MBA students what it has been for undergraduate students,” Quinn says. “There are lots of other options for people to get MBAs – logging on in the middle of the night or attending class in a rented space – but we have this fabulous campus. The ivy and beautiful trees make this a great setting to learn. Something magical happens when you walk onto our campus. It’s one of those things that helps our program stand apart from many others.”

The Schneider MBA program will share faculty with the undergraduate business administration program, for maximum benefit to all students in the discipline. Quinn adds, “We plan to have a very robust guest-speaker program. We’ll bring in people who are at a high level in the business community to teach specialized courses in their areas of expertise. We also intend for them to help network our students. One of the signatures here will be the level and number of speakers we have coming into an intimate environment.”

Finding enough students to fill the program is the least of the worries for Quinn and his team. They are bent on creating a sought-after program that will accept 35 students every fall and 15 in the spring, with the assumption that students will progress through at different rates. The goal is to have no more than 100 students in the program at a time so class sizes can remain small.

The application process gives more weight to an applicant’s professional standing and aspirations than to an undergraduate GPA that may have been earned decades earlier.

“We’re more concerned with what they’ve become,” Quinn says. “We’ll make these limited spots available for those most likely to become senior business leaders.”

The program’s competitive pricing, including tuition, technology fees and books, will range from $25,000 to $28,000 for the entire journey. Many students likely will receive tuition help from employers, and federal subsidized loans may also be an option depending on income levels.

“Employers understand they have to compete to keep their talent,” Quinn notes. “This would be a good use of their money.”

Brenda Busch ’93 (B.A.) ’13 (M.L.S.) has joined the admission team to serve as a point of contact for prospective and current students in all three of the college’s graduate-level programs – the Schneider MBA, the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (M.L.S.) and the Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.). Busch can relate to the challenges these students face after earning her own M.L.S. degree 20 years after completing her undergraduate studies.

“We definitely have a diverse age range of people who are looking into the program,” Busch says. “Some of the younger professionals even express a concern that they’re too young to be in a seat next to a senior-level executive. I tell them that just because this individual has this title or number of years of experience does not mean they know everything. You’re going to have a whole other perspective to offer.”

The full campus experience is another important part of the draw behind the Schneider MBA program. Students are invited to begin networking with classmates prior to the official start of classes, starting with a two-hour tour of prime study locations and dining options led by Busch.

“On Night One, we want them to feel like they’re already part of this place,” Quinn says. “Part of what makes this experience a little different is, everything they could possibly need is right here. What we don’t want them to do is [just] come for class at six o’clock, leave at nine o’clock, and get in their car and go home.”

Drew Van Fossen (Office of Communications) sees the Schneider MBA as a way to introduce the Schneider School to the wider community, with more specific branding strategies in play down the road. “We know through our market research that the Schneider brand is very strong,” he explains, “and has an excellent reputation in the northeast Wisconsin region. We’re using messaging that this is an MBA program that’s differentiated from the weekend and online MBAs in that it’s a real academic experience in the very best way.”

The Schneider MBA has already earned the necessary accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission. The longest-range goal of any gold-standard MBA program is one that can take as long as 10 years to attain: the specialized accreditation granted by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International. It’s a distinction that only about 15 percent of U.S. business schools possess, and it's a goal for the Schneider MBA.

It’s worth the extra effort to do it right the first time, says Quinn. “We know that if we’re doing the right thing by our mission, we will be doing something good.”

July 3, 2015