Connecting with Spouses is Key for Top MBA Programs
image: Grayson & Brandon Leverenz, UNC-KFBS Graduation
Winning Over E.M.B.A. Spouses
Schools have stepped up programs to get spouses and significant others in tune with students. The efforts are paying off.
By Alina Dizik
During the first week of the University of North Carolina ‘s Kenan-Flagler School of Business Weekend executive M.B.A. program, students go through the typical orientation, learning team-building and networking with classmates. But their significant others get attention as well. Spouses and partners get a card with the home and cell phone numbers of the program directors and are encouraged to call throughout the 20-month program.
“Occasionally, we’ll have [a partner] who’s facing some hurdles,” says weekend program director Anne-Marie Summers, who deals with scheduling conflicts and even discusses personal difficulties. She says her role has expanded to include counsel spouses sometimes.
It’s all part of an increasing effort at business schools that has seen program administrators go out of their way and come up with thoughtful and creative ways to appeal to students’ companions. Often, the student spends two Fridays and two weekends a month away from the home attending class. Since the average E.M.B.A. student is 36 years old, many have serious relationships and kids.
By endearing themselves to E.M.B.A. companions, business schools help ensure that students and their significant others are on the same team. These relationships are especially key when it comes to shelling out hefty tuition checks and dealing with a demanding work-life balance (students spend about 15 hours per week doing coursework, in addition to class time every-other-weekend).
New York University executive M.B.A. students are invited to bring the entire family along on a cruise around New York Harbor.
From day one, to help combat any misunderstandings about the program, schools have implemented optional companion orientations. Later in the program some schools hold special receptions to show appreciation for the partners. And with increased competition between E.M.B.A. offerings in the last decade, partner programs have become another way to stand out by offering students needed support.
According to the EMBA Council, 73% of schools now offer some kind of personalized services for spouses or significant others at programs with tuition of more than $80,000, which includes most of The Wall Street Journal’s Top 25 E.M.B.A programs for 2008.
Most schools try to build a relationship with students’ companions from the start. At University of California – Los Angeles’s Anderson School of Management, significant others are invited to join students for a four-day-long orientation at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a secluded luxury resort in Ojai, Calif. The school covers the total cost of the retreat – a tab that runs about $100,000 for the 100 or so participants, says Gonzalo Freixes, associate dean of the executive M.B.A. program. “It’s a valuable investment because it’s important for the students and significant others to know that the school cares about their families,” explains Mr. Gonzalo and says the school started offering the option to significant others 12 years ago.
Some schools invite companions to custom-created courses similar to those that their spouse or significant other will attend. At the New York University Stern School of Business, “Partners Day,” a Saturday orientation program for significant others, includes a mini-negotiations class taught by the chair of the management and organizations department. Prompted by the need to make partners feel like they are part of the E.M.B.A. community, the school began offering the special program more than 10 years ago. “We want to give them a chance to experience some of the content that students will be exposed to,” says Jaki Sitterle, managing director of executive programs at NYU. “Partners make a huge sacrifice.” Throughout the two year-program the school holds additional events to keep partners involved, including a New York Harbor boat tour and a dinner reception.
Lindsay Morgan, a New York-based fashion designer whose boyfriend, Hugues Hervouet, is in his second year of NYU’s program, says that speaking with people at the different outreach events – have made her more mindful of Mr. Hervouet’s time – and more interested in what he’s learning. Recently Ms. Morgan says she spent a few hours reading a case study for one of his courses about a fashion start-up. “I didn’t expect that it would be so interesting to me,” says Ms. Morgan.
In addition to the standard panels for spouses, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business also reverses the roles, with current E.M.B.A. students learning from second-year spouses about what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence. James Jackson, whose wife will graduate next year, says the effort helped them both learn how to make the most of her more limited time at home. “Everyone in the program has a Type A personality, so it’s ‘go, go, go’ all the time,” says Mr. Jackson, who felt concerned at the outset of his wife’s entrance to the E.M.B.A.
Schools like the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the Rice University Jones School of Management court partners by inviting them to go along on the international trips required in the E.M.B.A. program. This year, Rice began offering a “spousal package” to places like Russia, Dubai and China — including tailored activities for students’ partners and spouses for about $3,500 (the same as the cost for students). “In the past, when we had international trips, the spouse waited at the hotel, now we are putting on activities during the day – a place like China has (a lot) to offer,” says Sean Ferguson, assistant dean for degree programs at the business school. “For us, the happier the spouses, the happier the students are going to be.” In a typical year, about half of the significant others come along.
These efforts can also gain a student. The year after her husband graduated from North Carolina’s E.M.B.A. program, Carol Seagle, – who already had a Ph.D. in environmental science – quickly decided to do the same. Spending time with her husband’s classmates and school officials altered her notions about business school. “The biggest thing was how self-assured they became – it was almost like they were giving out Kool-Aid and I said ‘I want some of that’,” recalls Ms. Seagle who graduated this year and will join UNC’s business school faculty in the spring to teach courses on sustainability. Other spouses sometimes pursue shorter executive education courses and often act as a billboard for potential students. “We get referrals from spouses – it gives us another channel for word-of-mouth marketing,” says Mr. Ferguson.
And while many schools have mastered how to get spouses and significant others onboard, some are now starting to get the kids involved. At NYU, executive M.B.A. students who have children receive a NYU-logo baby back pack with a program application for the year 2040, says Ms. Sitterle.