Menachem Wecker

A course or two in social media can be helpful, but students say it's not worth a whole concentration

Business school courses are increasingly focusing on social media management, governance, and strategy. The Business School at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey -- Newark offers a "Mini-M.B.A." in social media marketing, and Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., recently announced an M.B.A. concentration in social media management.

At other schools, social media is more than just an elective. Southern New Hampshire University has offered an M.B.A. in Social Media Marketing since 2010, and New England College in Henniker, N.H., is scheduled to launch an online M.B.A. in Digital and Social Media on March 18.

Because social media is such a new field, New England College administrators decided there was a need for students to better understand the return on investment on tools such as Twitter and Google Analytics, says Diane Raymond, the dean of admissions. "I don't think there are any experts right now in social media," she says.

But the rise of social media-oriented M.B.A. programs has students asking how the new offerings differ from traditional programs that include social media electives. If business schools market new courses in social media as timely responses to the increasingly plugged-in business world, students and faculty wonder, should students who aspire to work in digital communications consider social-media M.B.A.'s better road maps for aspiring executives, or are they beating a dead Twitter bird?

"In my opinion, a [social media] concentration would be overkill. I do think it would be good to have a class on it, especially for people interested in marketing or concentrating in marketing. To have a concentration, which in most M.B.A. programs is three or four classes, would be excessive," says Lucia Sansoucy, an M.B.A. student at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

Sansoucy, who runs the social media handles for Assumption's graduate programs, says most students already know how to use social media. "The spin would be how to use it in a business setting. I don't think you would have three classes worth of material for that," she says.

Students should concentrate in marketing instead, and take a social media class, she says. "If a person were to get an M.B.A. with a concentration in social media, it might be seen as a bit of a lark, or that the person was slacking, or the degree -- and the school that offered it -- is not quite up to par," she says.

Raymond, the New England College dean, disagrees. Social media is too nuanced to be properly grasped in just a single course, she says.

"[In] this program in particular ... every course is guidelined and designed with digital social media trends," Raymond says. "I think because it's such a specialized field, you couldn't just give two courses and say, 'Here you go.' There [are] just too many trends, too many elements for this program that we really had to fine tune it and be sure that we were giving our students what they needed to prepare for their future."

The curriculum for the New England College program includes courses such as "Trends in Digital and Social Media," "Psychology of Social Media," "Digital Media Law and Ethics," and "Professional Writing and Design for New Media." Of the 10 courses listed on the program website, every course description except one -- an accounting and finance class -- mentions either social, new, or digital media.

At Southern New Hampshire University, students in the social media M.B.A. program need to take foundation courses before they can take the three specialized courses: "Social Media," "Social Media Marketing Strategy," and "Social Media Marketing Campaigns." That's one thing that caught Julie Zahn, a student in the program, off guard.

Zahn, who enrolled in the program hoping to develop social media communications skills she could use as director of alumni relations at a private, all-boys high school in Salisbury, Conn., says she was required to take 14 classes before she could take a social media course. She was also disappointed to learn there were only three courses in social media in the program.

"A year ago, social media -- Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter -- was more exciting than it is today. I have started to feel like it is a fad and that next year there will be something else new and exciting to help people communicate. I really wish that I had gotten a global M.B.A. and then just shadowed or interned with someone in the [social media] field," she says. "I would not recommend [the social media M.B.A.] -- at least at SNHU."

Other business school administrators say the value of social media programs isn't so clear cut. "This is an interesting area, and one that is in so much flux that it must be difficult for prospective students to know what to do," says James Dean, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill.

Students aspiring to work in management -- even if they want to manage social media -- should get a traditional M.B.A., but future marketing consultants or agency employees can specialize more, Dean says.

Because social media is so new, it can be difficult to identify the more credible programs, according to Dean. "While I am biased toward established and well-known institutions like UNC, it is possible that this turf will be successfully claimed by an institution outside the kinds of schools that U.S. News generally profiles," he says.

What is clear is that executives in training cannot ignore social media, says Jane LeClair, the dean of Excelsior's School of Business and Technology , which recently announced the social media M.B.A. concentration.

"Business leaders today who avoid social networks [and] stick their heads in the sand do so at their own risk," she says. "Individual conversations are happening on social media about individual companies, products, and services regardless of whether or not the company enters the space."


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Avoid Social Media MBAs, Some Students Say