This year was always going to be a distinctive one for SMU Cox School of Business. 2020 marked the centennial for business education at SMU, which grew from modest beginnings with two students and rustic facilities to having an international ranking and sought-after admittance. Of course, the pandemic ensured 2020 would be a memorable year for everyone, but the pressure it placed on the team at SMU Cox ultimately ended up highlighting one of the institution’s unique strengths.

“SMU Cox is a school where our admissions team is hands-on during every part of the process. For us, it’s always been about getting to know the candidate really well,” says J.R. McGrath, admissions director of SMU’s Full-Time MBA program. “When things began to shift in March, we were already having discussions about how we could evaluate candidates in alternative ways. We were one of the schools that acted most quickly with test waivers. Obviously, academics is at the foundation of every degree, but we try to look beyond to ensure that something out of a candidate’s control doesn’t completely dictate their future.”

“When other full-time programs have shut down or haven’t been able to fill their classes, SMU has been showing no signs of slowing down.”

Jillian Melton, director of admissions, Working Professional MBA Programs

This year, SMU’s flagship two-year Full-Time MBA serendipitously landed on the number 100 for its incoming class, with a diverse group of students that includes one of the program’s largest percentages of women, at 40%.

“When other full-time programs have shut down or haven’t been able to fill their classes, SMU has been showing no signs of slowing down,” says Jillian Melton, director of admissions, Working Professional MBA Programs. “There’s still a huge appetite for an education at a top school in a thriving business community. Having a class of 100 — that’s a beautiful way to etch that sentiment in stone.”

The Birth of the Cox MBA

SMU Cox’s ability to be flexible and anticipate the needs of its students, who are truly able to tailor their own MBA experience, has been the key to the School’s growth over the past century — that and its symbiotic relationship with the renowned business scene in Dallas.

The creation of an SMU business school came courtesy of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, which believed the additional education might prove beneficial for the city. And that’s certainly proven true, for both Dallas and the students who chose it. Shortly after the school’s founding, Dallas emerged as the financial center of the oil boom in the 1930s, and as it’s evolved to the globally recognized market it is today, SMU and Cox have grown right alongside it.

“SMU Cox is so bonded to the Dallas business community because our students get to experience it, but also, the companies benefit from that work and get to know our students as potential hires,” says Melton. “I think what’s also exciting is how diversified the Dallas business market is. Some cities can be one-note, but there are so many industries here to experience.”

How the MBA Has Evolved and Expanded

Throughout the past century, SMU Cox has grown to allow more potential students to benefit from that complementary relationship. Today, there are six different MBA programs, including the one- and two-year Full-Time MBAs.

2020 marks one of the largest classes of part-time Professional MBA students — the current enrollment is more than twice the size of last year’s. Given the economic uncertainty of the moment, an interest in continuing an education without leaving the workforce is understandable. The part-time program also offers one of the most dynamic ways to learn. “You’re bringing those challenges and problems you’re facing on a daily basis into the classroom,” Melton says. “And then you’re learning and finding solutions, which you’ll bring back to work.”

The SMU Cox School of Business’ newest format is the Cox MBA Direct program, which launched in May of this year and began with 37 students this fall — SMU Cox’s first-ever MBA class made up of more than 50% women. The part-time Cox MBA Direct program is geared toward recent college graduates with less than two years of post-degree work experience. It allows those working full time to start their MBA studies online upon completing their undergraduate degree.

“We were consistently getting really good applications from individuals with outstanding undergraduate experience and a great job lined up, but they just didn’t have enough work experience to join one of our programs. It was honestly extremely frustrating,” Melton says of the three-year MBA (the first year of which can be taken online). “We got the idea for the concept in early April. We were able to act really quickly and evolve the product.”

“When we look toward the next 100 years, we see the pace of change continue to grow faster and faster — across everything,” Melton adds. “As a business school, we know we need to be that much more nimble and flexible to evolve our programs. I think the MBA Direct is a really good example of that.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the Executive MBA, which has catered to those further along in their career for decades. The two programs represent the School’s response to separate niches in the academic market.

Innovation in 2020 and Beyond

Two years ago, SMU Cox responded to the need for greater flexibility. The result became the Online MBA, one of the School’s most popular programs and one that allowed SMU Cox to be more prepared for the current moment. The content is well produced, with classes meeting live weekly and three program pillars guiding curriculum: leadership, analytics and experiential learning.

Each year, the Online MBA hosts four- or five-day-long immersions in various cities. Last December’s was hosted in London, but the latest was held virtually. “We completely scrapped our plans and started over,” Melton says. “It was an innovation hackathon, but all of the innovation and feedback loops were done virtually through a crowdsourcing technology platform. It was really engaging for students, and what was cool was that it wouldn’t have worked in person. It was a really great way to bring people together from around the globe and still have that meaningful experiential learning. We’re really proud of just how quickly we were able to pivot and innovate.”

That innovation naturally extends to SMU Cox’s on-campus MBA programs, for which students were able to make the choice between virtual or in-person learning this fall. “We are putting our students first in terms of choice and what they want their year to look like,” Melton says. That, of course, includes the newest Full-Time MBA class.

One hundred students for 100 years of business education at SMU might seem like a novelty number, but it’s more than a headline. Ultimately, it’s a symbolic number McGrath and the SMU Cox admissions team hope students can rally around — now and when they reenter the workforce.

“I do think there’s going to be a lot of special bonds with this class. Starting a program in a pandemic, [with] 100 years and 100 students,” McGrath says. “Things will not always be how you imagine them. But if we can communicate and trust each other, then we’re all going to succeed together.”