In the spring, the Cox School’s graduate admissions teams took special note of a trend among applicants for the SMU Cox Online MBA program. SMU Cox has always been a magnet for highly motivated, ambitious young professionals — but this was different.

“We saw an increase in applications from really outstanding individuals with a great background academically and strong internships,” says Jillian Melton, director of admissions, Working Professional MBA Programs for the Cox School. “But they didn’t have the two to three years of work experience we were looking for. In most cases, they were coming out of undergrad, so they were very new in their careers.”

To meet that demand, SMU Cox developed the new Cox MBA Direct program, which launched this fall with an inaugural class of 37 students. The 53-credit program revolves around SMU Cox’s Online MBA curriculum, but it’s tailored for early-career professionals and is taught over a longer time frame of 33 months. The format and pace were deliberately chosen to allow students to maintain full-time professional roles while working toward their MBA. “So at graduation, they’ll be graduating with a top MBA degree as well as those three to five years of work experience, and they’ll really be in that sweet spot for what corporate recruiters are looking for,” Melton says.

Job Development Through Learning

Cox MBA Direct is a “just right” option for especially driven young candidates. There are immediate benefits for the college’s corporate recruiting partners as well, says Cox Career Management Center and Graduate Admissions executive director Jason Rife. Much of the value of an MBA comes from being able to combine classroom knowledge with professional experience.

The program’s students will, of course, bring everything they’re learning into the workplace. At the same time, organizations can use Cox MBA Direct as a means to retain valuable talent. “By supporting these high-potential students in the MBA Direct program, companies can help the student obtain the degree and create MBA-level opportunities for them once they graduate,” Rife says. “This is a great way to show your top talent that you care about their long-term development and to be able to retain them as your next generation of leadership.”

When students graduate from the Cox MBA Direct program, they’ll have a resume that shows robust academic and professional experience. The program’s emphasis on career development is reflected in its online format: Students have the flexibility to remain committed to their necessary full-time jobs and even to move, if their career calls for a change of scenery, says Hannah Nousain, associate director of admissions.

However, students also enjoy the same networking opportunities as any other MBA candidates, including clubs, activities and other opportunities to connect with students online and on campus. A mentorship program will be introduced in the coming spring semester. Live class sessions are limited by size, and group projects are a major feature of the program. Being in a cohort with equally committed young professionals has its own appeal. Unprompted, several students in Cox MBA Direct’s inaugural class have told Nousain, “This is the first time I’ve ever worked on a group project where everyone pulled their weight.”

“You’re putting together 37 really motivated young professionals who have already done well, who have held leadership positions during undergrad,” Nousain says. “They’re spurring one another on to do better; they’re challenging and encouraging one another.”

Preparing Leaders to Take Action for the Future

Reuben Jacob Rusk, 23, graduated from the University of Texas at Dallas in May with a degree in information technology systems. In internships at Southwest Airlines, Bank of America and other companies, he interacted with C-suite leaders who had three things in common. “They all had a strong network, inspiration to lead and an MBA,” he says.

Rusk, who works as a technology consultant at Ernst & Young, sees opportunity in Dallas’ growing market, especially for leaders who can master the balance of technology and finance. He enrolled in Cox MBA Direct to become that kind of leader. “I have been able to transfer the skills learned in the classroom directly to the workplace,” he says, and the program has given him a leg up by allowing him to pursue his ambitions early in his career and providing time to “learn by doing.”

Kelsey Graham, 24, works at Frito-Lay as a finance analyst on innovation products. “Think new flavors and shapes,” she says. “Putting a bag of chips on a shelf is much more complex than you would think.” A 2018 graduate of Texas Christian University, Graham was partly drawn to Cox MBA Direct because it would allow her to continue growing in her career at Frito-Lay. “Our cohort is from such diverse backgrounds and industries, so listening to different perspectives and ideas is amazing,” she says. “Everyone is very driven and collaborative, which makes class engaging and group work pleasant. I feel like I learn something new from my fellow MBA students every week.”

Getting an MBA also opens up a host of other options for Graham’s long-term future, whether she decides to continue her corporate career or open her own small business. “SMU is preparing me for these paths by offering many chances for networking and professional development,” she says. “This program not only provides the tools to become a strong, compassionate leader, but [also] teaches you how to take action.”

By taking action and launching the MBA Direct program, SMU Cox is leading by example and ensuring that this inaugural class, and the ones after it, receive both the academic and professional experience necessary to succeed in the corporate world.

Read more about SMU Cox’s graduate programs.