CHAMPAIGN - Dwindling enrollment in the University of Illinois' Executive MBA program led the university to move the classes to Chicago, beginning in August.
?Class sizes are smaller than they used to be. The average was 40 in the 1980s,? said Merle Giles, director of the program that allows executives to earn a master's degree in business administration by attending classes on weekends.
But the two Executive MBA classes meeting now have only 29 and 23 students, and that's not enough to cover the costs.
?This is a high-cost business: high-touch, high-tech, with the best faculty,? said Giles, himself a graduate of the program. ?We would expect to see some net surpluses going forward with class sizes of 50. We cannot generate net surpluses at 29 and 23.?
Giles said he doesn't know exactly why enrollment in the highly rated program has shrunk. Traditionally the program has drawn executives from companies in Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Champaign-Urbana, with about 20 percent of the class coming from Chicago and its suburbs.
Employers sending executives have included Peoria-based Caterpillar, Blooming- ton-based State Farm Insurance and Moline-based Deere & Co. Amdocs Ltd. in Champaign and General Electric in Mattoon have also sent employees.
?We've seen a decline in demand downstate,? Giles said. ?It's easy to point to the economy, but ... we've been doing it for 27 years. There are more options for MBAs than there were 25 years ago.?
?We may be seeing some effect of saturation,? he said. ?Maybe we've saturated the market for MBAs, but I'm one to think we'd never saturate the market.?
Bradley University in Peoria began offering an executive MBA program two years ago, providing some competition downstate.
But in moving classes to Chicago, the UI will face more competition than just Bradley. Two highly regarded schools, the University of Chicago and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, both offer executive MBAs.
?In Chicago, there's a proliferation of part-time MBA programs on evenings or Saturdays,? Giles said. ?DePaul has the largest part-time MBA program in the country with 2,500 students. The University of Chicago runs executive and part-time and (full-time) programs, and they have 3,000 students.?
But the UI feels it has an ace in the hole - namely its large alumni base in Chicago and the suburbs. More than 100,000 alumni from the Urbana-Champaign campus live in that seven-county area.
That base, plus the wealth of corporations in Chicagoland willing to foot the bill for employee degrees, convinced the UI to move the classes from Champaign to the Illini Center on Chicago's South Wacker Drive - and raise tuition from $50,000 to $68,000.
For now, it's only the classes that are moving, Giles said.
?The faculty will travel,? he said. ?The faculty and I are staying here (in Champaign). We want this to remain an orange-and-blue degree.?
Under the current system, students can attend class in Champaign or Chicago. Members of the class are connected by a videoconferencing hookup, and professors can be at either site.
Next fall, ?we're not going to continue the videoconference model,? Giles said. ?We'll do all the weekend teaching face-to-face in Chicago.?
Laurel Davis, who works for National City Bank in Oak Brook, will graduate from the Executive MBA program in May. She said moving the program from Champaign to Chicago is a good idea.
?My reaction to it is, it's a positive. I think the program's been an excellent program, but the market is somewhat limited downstate. There's a huge base of students, a lot of them Illinois alumni, all sitting in Chicago. Just focusing on Illinois alumni would help improve the enrollment,? she said.
Davis is such an alum. She and four of her siblings got undergraduate degrees from the UI.
?Illinois has sort of been our school, and we want to go there,? said Davis, a vice president in National City's treasury management division.
Now in the final stretch of the Executive MBA program, Davis said she has been pleased with it.
?I didn't realize the full impact until I got to the last semester. Things started falling together,? she said.
As part of the program, Davis worked on a six-person team that collaborated with a nonprofit group in Barrington. The group is trying to buy a historic local theater and use it for a performing arts center. The nonprofit group had already done an analysis of how much physical improvements would cost; it hoped the MBA students could outline a business plan for the venture.
The team of students had to outline ?ways you could go about programming, what you might program, what you could expect to charge for tickets, how much you could expect to pay for acts,? Davis said.
Beginning this week, she and the entire Executive MBA class will take a 10-day trip to Europe to fulfill requirements for the program. They'll go to the German cities of Berlin, Leipzig and Munster and to Brussels, Belgium. They'll work in teams - and with German MBA students - on case studies involving industrial giants BASF and Volkswagen.
Davis said that as a student in the Executive MBA program, she generally came to Champaign two to three times a semester for classes. But generally, she was one of six to eight students who gathered at the Illini Center for videoconference classes.
That was a lot easier than making the two-hour, 15-minute trip.
?The technology in our program is an excellent backup resource ... but being face-to-face with the entire class is the optimal way to go,? she said.
Giles has been director of the Executive MBA program since 1996. Before that, he was president of Sheridan Bank of Peoria and then chief financial officer for Star Transport, a trucking company in Morton. He was a student in the UI's Executive MBA program from 1992 to 1994 - before becoming its director two years later.
Giles said the reaction he has heard to the decision to move the program to Chicago has largely been positive.
?Our alums who know what we've done are, by and large, absolutely thrilled,? he said. ?Companies in Chicago are equally thrilled. They're elated.?
But the feeling is not unanimous.
?There are a few alums who say this is quite a loss to Champaign,? Giles said. ?I think it's nostalgia - they like it the way it's always been.?
Giles said it wasn't practical to try to offer separate Executive MBA programs at both locations.
?At this time, I don't believe the market can support that,? he said. ?One of the barriers to doing that is two faculties. We'd have to have the faculty flexibility and depth. ... We can't stretch it too thin.?
You can reach Don Dodson at (217) 351-5227 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .