By Brian Burnsed

Schools afford students with liberal arts backgrounds new opportunities to hone their business acumen

It took only one year for Ron Johnson to leap from a management position at a SuperTarget store to a role at athletic apparel maker Under Armour where he helps develop shoes worn on court by N.B.A. luminaries like Orlando's Gilbert Arenas and up-and-coming stars like Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings. Johnson says he owes his dramatic ascent to the M.A. in Management program offered by Wake Forest University . "My main goal at that point was 'I just want to get out of retail,'" he says. "[Now], regardless [of] whether or not I get in at 6 [a.m.] and leave at 9:30 [p.m.], I get to talk about basketball and basketball sneakers all day, and I owe Wake Forest for that."

Johnson graduated from Hampden-Sydney College in 2008 with a degree and economics and psychology that he parlayed into a job at Target. But after nearly a year there, he caught wind of the 10-month program at Wake Forest, which is intended for students with a year or less of post-graduate professional experience and who hail from liberal arts -- or nonbusiness -- academic backgrounds.

Johnson, who once hawked athletic shoes in high school, received a partial scholarship, and enrolled in 2009. Via the school's Career Management Center, an office that works with every student until he or she finds a job, Johnson was able to connect with with Eric Wiseman, CEO of apparel giant VF Corporation. After a meeting, Wiseman offered to mention Johnson's name to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. "By the time this man walked down the hallway [after the meeting] I had my résumé in his Blackberry," says Johnson, who is now associate product line manager for basketball footwear at Under Armour.

Wake's program, founded three years ago, is one of several graduate programs that have recently started targeting students without business experience. Prominent business schools that offer similar degrees include those at Duke University , the University of Virginia , and the University of Florida , which created the first such program in 2000. Steve Reinemund, dean of business at Wake Forest, claims the M.A. program gives students an avenue to sharpen broad skills -- like communication and critical thinking -- they developed as undergraduates, which they may not know how to implement in the professional setting without specific training in areas like teamwork, marketing, or accounting. "[Our students] come in, they have lots of energy, a broad background, and some drive, but really have no clue about business or how to apply it," he says.

Among the class that graduated from Wake Forest's program in 2010, 90 percent of the students found jobs within six months according to a school spokesperson. There are 96 students in the class set to graduate this summer, who were drawn from a pool of roughly 600 applicants. Though only about 15 percent of students are accepted, the academic admission standards are less rigorous than traditional business programs at Wake Forest and comparable schools: The median undergraduate GPA of the class of 2011 is 3.1, the median GRE score is 1150, and the median GMAT is 590. (M.B.A. students at Wake have an average GMAT score of 653, for instance.) About half of students are female -- atypical among business programs -- and more than half are underrepresented minorities. "We really look at the whole person," Reinemund says.

Annual tuitions at these programs are roughly on par with those of a traditional M.B.A., though most of the management M.A. programs last one year instead of the typical two spent earning an M.B.A. At Florida's Hough Graduate School of Business, the one-year M.S. in Management program costs $14,500 for in-state students and $37,500 for out-of-state students, says Ana Portocarrero, director of the program. By comparison, tuition for M.B.A. students at Florida is $10,915 and $28,309 per year for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.

Unlike at Wake Forest or Duke, where 70 percent of students have six months or less of work experience, Florida's program is available to older students who have worked for several years in another field. And students from other graduate programs at the university can dual enroll, coupling their area of expertise -- engineering, for instance -- with business training.

Only students without prior business experience are allowed to apply and the bulk of students are younger and have relatively little work experience of any kind. "The idea is to provide our students with the business background to allow them to go into their chosen field -- even if it's nonbusiness -- but to have that managerial experience that will allow them to advance within their profession, or to switch their focus to business," Portocarrero says.

According to the NCAA, only about 1 percent of college athletes are able to pursue careers as professional athletes. To help the other 99 percent find work when their playing days are over, Wake Forest's Reinemund claims he has reached out to athletic directors at several schools in hopes of recruiting student athletes, who make up a relatively high proportion -- an estimated 10 percent -- of Wake Forest's program. He seeks them not for their athleticism, but their leadership potential. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of great athletes who aren't going to make it to the pros," he says. "By the time they graduate, they have a good education, great leadership, but they don't know how to apply it."

Tahirah Williams was one such athlete. A senior on the University of Connecticut 's 2009 national championship women's basketball team, she had aspirations of playing overseas and eventually in the WNBA. However, after consulting with family, she saw the importance of starting a career off the court sooner rather than later. Some friends tried to steer her toward broadcasting, but she claims her heart wasn't in it.

A communications science major at Connecticut, she landed in the management program at Wake hoping she'd be able to make inroads into the corporate world, and credits the network of career counselors and professors who helped guide her through a difficult, and unfamiliar, business curriculum. After graduating from Wake Forest's program in 2010, Williams landed a job at Frito-Lay, where she manages a five-member sales team. While her four years at Connecticut were subsidized by her athletic prowess, she had to take out a loan to cover Wake Forest's $40,000 tuition and additional living expenses. "That was really, really tough," she says. "The money I took out was an incredibly large amount, but I'm glad that I did it. I see it is an investment in my life."

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