Two years in, we provide an update on the MBA curriculum. It still feels new, but the program has empowered plenty of student success stories already.
By Anne Freedman
It’s supple, yet strong, this new piece of academic fabric. That’s the consensus about the Wharton MBA curriculum, as the Class of 2014 graduates this May and becomes the first group of students to have gone two years through the program’s flexible, dynamic structure
“People are pleasantly surprised at how smooth the implementation was last year when we launched the new curriculum,” says Howard Kaufold, vice dean of the MBA Program and adjunct professor of finance.
The goal of the curriculum is to allow students to tailor their courses to their personal and career interests, he says, and students have done so through more choice in course selection and class timing. The curriculum requires students to take a set of “fixed core” courses only in the fall of their first year, although even there, students retain the ability to seek waivers due to credentials or testing. After the fixed core is complete, students are free to choose among electives and a set number of “flex core” courses, all of which offer at least two alternatives, with some offering three or four options. Between fixed and flex, the core courses amount to nine credit units out of 19 needed to graduate. Previously, fixed core classes took up the entire first year of the MBA program and were fixed in subject matter.
While many of the qualitative programs from the former fixed core have not changed, the new flexible core curriculum offers more in the way of soft skills, focus on ethical considerations and a global outlook.
Watch it: Cluster pride is in full action in our video of the Cluster Cup Dance-off.
The new program responds to supply and demand too, explains Stephan Dieckmann, deputy vice dean of academic affairs for the MBA Program and adjunct associate finance professor. It requires the School to have enough sections of desired flex core classes—ideally offered at times when students want to take them, he says.
While there isn’t much data available yet, Dieckmann says, students have taken about 90 percent of all flexible core classes in their first year. They have enrolled in about 60 percent of the flex core classes in the spring semester, and 40 percent in the fall.
Because there is more choice—and because those choices are offered earlier in the student’s academic career— Wharton’s administration has worked to make sure its academic advisers are prepared to deliver helpful information, Dieckmann says.
“Some questions come up earlier,” he says. “Is it more work for the students [to select classes]? Not necessarily. Students have to work through all of the offerings at some point and think through them.”
Has it been more work for the faculty? Kaufold praises the faculty for their efforts and energy since the curriculum launch.
“It’s a tribute to the faculty who made some adjustments to accommodate student requests for specific courses,” he says.
The feedback and coaching network has been particularly beneficial.
One benefit of the new curriculum’s flexibility is that it helps students prepare for professional interviews or summer internships, says Maryellen Lamb, deputy vice dean of MBA admissions, financial aid and career management. Students can make sure they take the flexible core and elective classes they need before seeking out positions.
“It’s so great to be able to see the students thinking and talking about their careers in more tactical ways earlier on,” Lamb says.
As part of the change, the School also instituted a voluntary executive coaching and feedback program to allow students to work on their leadership skills, and a new social program organized around clusters—four clusters consisting of three cohorts each—to widen learning and networking communities. The time students spend with their cohort has decreased as a result of less time being spent in fixed core classes. The feedback and coaching network has been particularly beneficial, Lamb says—again, returning to professional preparation.
“They are not just advising around academics, career or extracurriculars,” she says. “They really encourage them to maximize their time at Wharton in a holistic way, and to really think actively about what they are going to do over the course of their careers.”
Student career planning and preparation is by no means limited to employers, internships and recruitment. The new curriculum provides the freedom that entrepreneurs need to follow their dreams as well. Lamb points to the growing popularity of the Semester in San Francisco (SiSF) program, which will enter into its third year this fall. SiSF offers full-time MBA students who are interested in working on the West Coast in fields such as entrepreneurship, technology and venture capital a semester at the Wharton | San Francisco campus.
Being able to select classes more important to her long-term career was undoubtedly an advantage.
Another quality of the MBA curriculum—besides its power to serve the academic and professional needs of each of the 800-plus individuals in every class—is that it can, and will, be improved upon. The program will be evaluated by a Curriculum Innovation and Review Committee, composed of faculty and students, reports Kaufold.
The program offers “challenges for the student, challenges for the faculty and challenges for the advisers,” he says. “The beauty of it is you get choice and you get market signals of what people want.”
Nothing good comes without effort, in other words. For the School, the flexible curriculum ultimately benefits administrators by allowing them to re-evaluate course offerings as they see which classes are popular with students.
And for students, good things have indeed come to the first-years and second years who have had the privilege of experimenting with the curriculum in its early days.
New Curriculum Enriches Student Life Too
Rumor has it that MIT’s Sloan School of Business was concerned that it was losing MBA recruits to Wharton. Why? Because everybody loves going to Wharton for its dynamic social scene, both informal but especially formalized. We do not trade in rumors here at Wharton Magazine, but what we can say for sure is that student life was good before the new curriculum and has only gotten better.
The same team that studied how to change how MBA students take their coursework also examined the student experience—“to make sure every student found a place at Wharton and got out of Wharton what they wanted,” says Kembrel Jones, deputy vice dean of student life.
Wharton administrators listened to the students during this deep dive. For instance, they heard that students enjoyed the cohort experience, but that some felt limited after a year in terms of the number of students they had met. With the new curriculum, cohorts are no longer as prominent during second semester, first year. Clusters have been created to cultivate a broader sense of belonging and facilitate more friendships and acquaintances. Four clusters of roughly 210 students and three cohorts each make up every new MBA class.
It’s the best of both worlds. Students can remain as connected with their cohort as they like but also can mingle with two other cohorts— as early as Pre-Term, when they first connect with clustermates through eight days of intensive, cluster-focused activities. The camaraderie continues throughout their two years. Every month during the school year, each cluster has supper together. Spaced throughout the year are Cluster Cup events.
During these competitions—dancing, academic and athletic—upward of 400 attendees have been known to get rowdy, calling out cluster cheers. Yes, each cluster has its own cheer and mascot. (Currently, Cluster 1’s is a rooster, Cluster 2’s is a honey badger, Cluster 3’s is a bee and Cluster 4’s is a tiger.)
“We wanted the pride in the cluster,” Jones says.
The social life setup also affords students opportunities to flex their leadership muscles. A Cluster Council of 15 students, led by a president, oversees the cluster system. New to the MBA program, as well, is a personal board of advisors for every student. It includes staff members (four new student life advisors and existing academic and career advisors), as well as leadership and (new) student life fellows.
The logical next question from any alum who has been back to campus in recent years is: Where do they have room for all these new activities? The answer is that Wharton has new space.
The School now occupies two prime Center City locations: 2401 Walnut St. and the Armory at 23rd St. between Chestnut and Market. The latter spot is home to many Cluster Cup events and the new base for Pub. Jones estimates attendance at Pub has doubled because “everybody lives within two blocks.” The 2401 space is semi-professional in atmosphere and suited for conference, club and other team meetings. In the case of this summer, more than 20 groups of entrepreneurs used 2401 as a practical startup incubator—which is expected to repeat this summer. Cluster suppers also occur on-site. With all the activities at 2401, an average of 500 students pass through daily, Jones says.
But of course, free Pub pizza and extra meeting space are all part of the bigger, strategic picture behind the new curriculum changes.
“We have the largest student life team in the country, which shows Wharton’s focus on having the student experience remains strong,” Jones says.
View them: Pub isn’t just about free pizza anymore. See 2401 Walnut St. in action in our digital photoset.
Wharton’s new curriculum structure “does a good job of mixing classes such as macroeconomics and statistics that generate quantitative skills with classes more focused on operational management and soft skills classes like public speaking,” says student Hunt Kushner. “I think those are three areas of intellectual focus that it covers very well. In the end, every career requires those three skills.”
Every student also requires a social life. One of Kushner’s favorite social experiences has been serving as vice president of Cluster 3, during which he’s done everything from wear a bumblebee costume (their mascot) to competing in the intramural chili cookoff. He also plays on the Wharton Wildmen League, a formally organized MBA hockey league.
“We have full gear, professional referees and Wharton jerseys. The best part is that most players, like me, have never played hockey before,” Kushner says.
Getting back to academics, as a first-year student, Kushner can’t obviously compare his experience to the old curriculum of prior years, but he appreciates that the new curriculum allows students to select classes that “strengthen the skills in the career field they are interested in.” Kushner’s strategy was to focus on the core curriculum his first year so he would be “fully free in the second year” to take advantage of the flexible core and electives.
And he is thinking ahead. He will likely opt for Dynamic Marketing Strategy (MKTG 612) in the flexible core because it offers more traditional instruction in a subject he has no career experience in, he says. He also plans to take Operations Strategy (OPI M 615) because it offers a useful skill that corresponds with his desire to work in a management role, most likely in the oil and gas industry.
“That’s why I chose a class based on core operations within a firm, versus a class focused on innovation or information technology,” he explains.
As for the Legal Studies & Business Ethics flexible core selections, he is drawn to Responsibility in Global Management (LGST 611).
“I liked the fact that it looked at comparative forms of corporate governance and dealt with potential issues that faced businesses, such as protecting human rights—things I want to make sure I am prepared for,” he says.
The Cost Benefit of Diversity
One benefit of the new curriculum is the ability to dedicate more time to specific subjects, says the Class of 2014’s Liz Stiverson, but there are tradeoffs.
The biggest loss, she says, has been less time with her learning team and cohort. In the past, students would spend a full year with their cohort.
To counterbalance that, Stiverson selected some classes, like a full semester of Macroeconomics (MGEC 611/612), instead of taking a waiver exam to take it as a half-semester class, even though she majored in economics as an undergrad.
“I thought it was pretty important to be there for my learning team as much as I can,” she says.
Her classmates have also put together informal teams at the start of any flex core or elective course.
“We spend a lot of time working together,” she says. “2401 Walnut has been an amazing addition and a really comfortable setting that makes it easy to go from group work to individual work to just talking over food.”
As part of the new cluster system, Stiverson served on her cluster leadership board and as an event captain. “We’re also using the cluster system to create bonds between first and second years,” she adds, including such events as a Thanksgiving potluck and trivia night last fall and a night at the local Shake Shack this spring.
Professionally, being able to select classes more important to her long-term career interest in entrepreneurial management was undoubtedly an advantage of the new curriculum. That was why she chose Innovation (OPI M 614) instead of the other three operations options in the flex curriculum. She also went with Responsibility in Global Management (LGST 611) instead of LGST 612, which focused on professional services. And it explains why Stiverson chose Managing the Emerging Enterprise (MGMT 612), which focused on global enterprises, instead of large U.S.-based companies, as part of the flexible core.
“That was content I was less familiar with, and I thought a broader exposure would be more worthwhile,” she says.
The changes require students to spend more time on course selection, Stiverson says, but that can lead to more engagement in the classroom.
Her other choices were a full semester of Financial and Managerial Accounting (ACCT 613) because “literacy in financial statements is pretty important no matter what field you go into.” (She previously worked as a consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and plans to return to that field in the near term). She also selected Entrepreneurship (MGMT 801), an elective that “really complemented Innovation in generating and managing organizations around new ideas.”
She added that the flexible core let her change the sequence of classes, so she could take both Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the spring of her first year, waiting until the fall of her second year to take Dynamic Marketing Strategy (MKTG 612).
“Overall,” she says, “I think there are benefits to starting to be able to take more diverse classes sooner, but it does come with a cost.
A Lauder View
It turns out that Lauder students do not see “considerable extra flexibility built into the new core … for the first semester or semester and a half,” says Mauricio Cordero, a first-year, international student in the MBA/M.A. Lauder Joint-Degree in International Studies.
Cordero, however, has experienced the ability to take accelerated or longer versions of some classes, which he notes as an advantage, as is using credentials or placement exams to waive some courses.
“That’s certainly a plus. It frees up some of the space that you have and has allowed me take electives such as Private Equity in Emerging Markets (MGMT 809) or Social Impact Bonds (GAFL 741),” says Cordero, who worked in banking before coming to Wharton and will be interning in consulting this summer.
He also has enjoyed the choice, for instance, to take a full semester of Macroeconomics and the Global Economy (FNCE 613) because it was being taught by Jeremy Siegel, the Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance, as opposed to opting for a shorter version.
“The professor is really good and covers current economic events while giving an interesting market summary at the start of each class,” he explains.
While his MBA major currently is Business Economics and Public Policy, Cordero is considering switching to Strategic Management.
“There are numerous interesting classes in that field dealing with negotiation, influence and leadership—subjects that in the long run will benefit me more than taking another economics class,” he says, noting that softer skills, focusing on negotiation or communication, may add more tangible value in achieving future career goals—regardless of career—than quantitative classes.
Even though he has only started to focus on electives and the flex core courses, he pushes the administration to make the new curriculum design even more supple.
“Perhaps not everyone thinks statistics or having two microeconomic classes is necessary,” Cordero says. “For some students, it might be more advantageous to take another leadership or marketing class instead of a statistics class,” he adds.
Then again, Cordero thrived in an outside-the-classroom leadership moment—perhaps the “single best experience” he’s had at School so far. The Antarctica Wharton Leadership Venture not only provided him with the opportunity to visit a remote, stunning location, he pushed himself and his teammates in an extremely challenging environment for seven days.
“The relationships and bonds I forged though these experience are very unique, as we were able to apply teamwork and leadership concepts in a real scenario,” he says.
Cordero also reserves praise for the new Course Match system, which uses an algorithm based on student preferences to determine class allocation.
“For me, it has worked perfectly well. I got all of the classes that I wanted last semester, even though some are very hard to get into,” he says.
Focus on Flexibility
“I knew going in I wanted to have a technology and entrepreneurial focus,” recalls Austin Domenici. “So I started to take those classes as early as possible.”
And he didn’t limit himself to just the flex core. One of the best classes he took as a first-year was an elective, Programming Languages and Techniques (CIT 590), targeted to non-computer science majors.
“It’s less about the specific languages and more about regimented thinking and logical structuring. I was able to adjust my schedule and take that class the first year, which had an extremely positive impact,” he says.
Other very valuable electives, Domenici says, were E-Health Business Models and Impact (HCMG 866); Health Policy: Health Care Reform and the Future of the American Health System (HCMG 850); and Managerial Decision Making (OPI M 690). “My focus has been technology, business analytics, health care and entrepreneurship,” says Domenici, who previously worked in health care and is being sponsored by Deloitte Consulting, where he is on hiatus from its strategy and operations practice.
Domenici would not have been as prepared to take as many analytical classes without launching early into his flex core and elective classes.
“I am really excited about the way everything tied together,” he says. “I like flexibility. I like being able to chart my own course.”
The flip side of flexibility, of course, is “the onus is much more on the student.” Domenici used a “buddy system” with another student in his learning team to share the responsibility. “We both looked at classes and talked about them before trying to sign up,” he says. The result has been exactly what he wants.
“I definitely felt I had a choice from my first class,” he says.