UT Austin business school dean on why MBA students shouldn’t worry too much about layoffs, recession

BY Sydney LakeMay 16, 2023, 2:39 PM
Headshot photo of Lillian Mills, dean of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas—Austin by Sasha Haagensen

When Lillian Mills became dean of the McCombs School of Business at University of Texas–Austin in April 2020, her appointment was history-breaking in more than one way. As the first woman to lead the top-ranked business school, Mills also took the reins early on during the COVID-19 pandemic. This forced her to steer the school through one of the most impactful crises—while simultaneously settling into her new role.

Having shepherded business school students and faculty through the pandemic, Mills is now leading McCombs through an era of heightened concerns about both the U.S. economy and job market. When Mills was named as dean of McCombs—which Fortune ranks as having top full-time MBA, executive MBA, and part-time MBA programs—UT Austin President Jay Hartzell coined her as having an “infectious energy and sense of optimism”—a fervor she still maintains today. 

In fact, Mills says that MBA recruitment has even been improved since the onset of the pandemic because more interviewing can be done online versus in-person. This means that the school can accommodate more companies who want to hire UT Austin students, but may not be able to do so in-person. 

Moreover, applications are pouring in for the full-time and part-time MBA programs, and Mills says that students are still finding employment post-graduation because McCombs graduates are hired into a variety of industries—not just Big Tech or finance.

Interest is spread among several industries including consulting (11% of 2022 graduates), energy (11%), finance and banking (14%), government (10%), and technology (11%). McCombs 2022 graduates earned median base salaries of $130,000, with the range being $50,000 to $205,000, according to the school’s most recent employment report.

“We keep ourselves focused on how we’re going to go out and change the world for the better. That’s going to make everybody better off,” she tells Fortune. “I’m really proud sitting here. Yeah, the economy is a little wobbly, but we’ll see our way through that, too.”

Fortune sat down with Mills to learn more about trends the school is experiencing in uncertain economic times. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Fortune: There have been a ton of layoffs recently—particularly in Big Tech. Shouldn’t MBA students be worried?

Mills: Graduate programs are counter-cyclical. When there are layoffs and recessions, there tend to be more graduate applications. Our applications remain strong. And we have always chosen to admit a relatively high proportion of domestic students. We’re fairly steady at 20%-ish international students because we are committed to their career outcomes. We want a globally diverse MBA program. But we feel lucky because we have a long reputation of having a high proportion of domestic students. 

We were not crushed in COVID when the visa pipeline for international students temporarily collapsed, and that had some painful consequences to our East and West Coast peer schools. We are expecting an uptick over the next year or two because of the amount of layoffs, but the Texas economy itself is strong relative to other parts of the country. 

We have a high diversification in where our students go after graduation. In a financial crisis, for schools in the Northeast that are heavily dependent on Wall Street placements, that’s nerve-wracking for them. Our West Coast colleagues who find opportunities for students in tech jobs, these layoffs are likely to be more jarring. 

Here, we have such a great mix of people headed into finance or into tech or consulting or into really good marketing or management jobs. There are also a lot of entrepreneurial efforts where venture capital money is flooding in. Private equity and venture capital are really robust right now.

What we’re telling both our undergraduates and our MBAs is that the diversification of employers looking for you is high, and you’re likely to be facing two or three job offers, not 10. We’re not worried about our students not securing employment. If there are those headwinds of layoffs and people are applying to our MBA programs, we welcome them. We’ve got the capacity in both our top-ranked, one-year MS programs, as well as our flagship full-time MBA program.

Has McCombs already started seeing more MBA applications?

The thing that’s had a huge upsurge in the last year was applications to our working professional MBA program. We have such a great flagship MBA program that they want an MBA and they want to keep their job while they’re doing it. That’s been interesting in that it’s seen growth rather than ‘Oh, everybody got laid off,’ and only applying to the full-time MBA. 

A focus on entrepreneurship

What else are soon-to-be MBA graduates at UT Austin interested in?

It’s in our entrepreneurship opportunities. Within the MBA program, we have the John Brumley Texas Venture Labs.

We don’t expect all people in an entrepreneurship program to start a business as their full-time gig at age 22 as an undergraduate or 25 to 35 as an MBA graduate. Interestingly, though, some of them do because high schoolers are coming in with apps they’ve created and businesses they started in high school.

That program can give you all the skills that even if you choose to go to a highly innovative but very large company, you now have more appreciation for whether the company will or won’t dedicate resources to your innovative ideas. As you spend perhaps a little bit of time out in a large business, you are making the connections and networks that when you are ready, that you and some fellow colleagues at work or MBA student you knew can go get that venture capital money.

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