How MBA programs are embracing data in their curricula

BY Sam BeckerFebruary 15, 2023, 2:13 PM
Students at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as seen in September 2022. (Photographer: Hannah Beier—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Data is big—both in terms of how much information we, as a society, are able to capture and process, and how businesses are utilizing it. The increased focus on data and how it’s used has led to the creation of new industries and jobs; Google or Facebook, for instance, have largely led the charge in consumer-facing data collection and synthesis, and have built entirely new business models over the past two decades by finding ways to monetize data.

And there’s a firehose of data to monetize, by the way: One estimate suggests that every single person generates 1.7 megabytes of data every second, and by 2025, forecasts show that the amount of global data creation is expected to tally 180 zettabytes (for reference, a zettabyte is equal to one trillion gigabytes). All that data needs to be captured, processed, and monetized, and that’s led to the creation of numerous new career paths and rather lucrative jobs. 

In response, many top-ranked business schools have created data or analytics-focused degrees, such as MBA programs with data concentrations or master’s degree programs in business analytics. And students are piling into data-focused classes to help prepare them for roles in business analytics and data science, among others.

“Five years ago, there were no data-focused majors, but now it’s the second-most popular major at Wharton,” says Eric Bradlow, vice dean of analytics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “We have more than 60 courses that are analytics-based,” he says, adding that thousands of students are also part of the school’s analytics club.

Suffice it to say: Business school students are taking to big data in a big way.

Business schools go big on Big Data

The University of Pennsylvania is one of many schools that have beefed up their data offerings in recent years, particularly for MBA students. Wharton now offers a business analytics MBA major, which “is designed to build deep competency in the skills needed to implement and oversee data-driven business decisions,” according to the program’s website. 

The creation of that major, and the implementation of numerous courses across the Wharton ecosystem, is a direct result of the growth in data-related professions across the global economy, Bradlow says. “More and more fields and jobs require data science skills,” he says. As such, he predicts that data courses will “become more and more a part of the core curriculum” at business schools.

Administrators at other schools also say that increased student demand is leading to the introduction of data and analytics-related MBA concentration. “We’re seeing more and more interest every year, there’s more awareness and discussion in society, in general, about the role that data plays in our lives,” says Stephanie Nesbitt, dean of the School of Business & Justice Studies, and associate professor at Utica University

Utica introduced a business analytics specialization for its management MBA program several years ago, and Nesbitt says that the program “has always had a steady stream of students interested in it, and who understand its value.” Like Bradlow, Nesbitt says interest has increased in recent years. “The proliferation of cheap and easy data demands that you have people who can work with it—gather it, clean it, and meld it together in a sensible way, and analyze it.” 

The need for data workers, Nesbitt says, has led to a “natural evolution” of data-focused programs in business schools, producing graduates who can help businesses utilize the data they’re collecting “to make good decisions.”

What students need to know about data MBAs

For students who are gauging their interest in data and analytics-related MBA programs, it’s hard to overlook the potential opportunities post-graduation. The job outlook for management analysts, with median salaries of $93,000, is expected to grow 11% between 2021 and 2031, while the tangential role of data scientist is expected to grow 36% in that timeframe, with median salaries in the six-figures, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And combining data skills with an MBA can open a lot of potential doors in terms of job opportunities.

“You can find positions utilizing data and MBA skills in any sector or industry,” says Nesbitt. “Having some level of tech skill isn’t a bad thing, especially in data and analytics—but do it in combination with an MBA because you can layer in those skills and have a firm skill set, like the ability to manage data.”

Given that MBAs tend to be more “general” degrees, Nesbitt adds, a hard-and-fast specialization or concentration may put MBA grads in a better position to land jobs. “If you don’t have a burning passion for one discipline, data and analytics is a foot in the door to try a lot of different things,” she says.

And even though data-related jobs have been growing steadily in recent years, there’s no reason to suspect that that growth will slow down. To meet that demand, Bradlow predicts: “Within five years, we’ll see every business school in the world teaching data science skills.” 

That’s why for students trying to decide on a specialization or a major that can lead to a lucrative and in-demand career, one that’s focused on data might fit the bill.

“The business world will demand data skills,” says Bradlow. “And they’ll need students trained in these subjects.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.