Gabe Constantine’s days were consumed with beef, and he was ready to return to school. He had graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley with a BS in Material and Management Logistics in 2020 at one of the strangest moments in the history of graduations—his commencement had been an online slideshow. His final season as a baseball pitcher was slammed shut when the pandemic exploded. Once he finished his degree online, at home in McKinney, Texas, and took a job at the Texas grocery giant H-E-B, moved to San Antonio and dived into material management logistics. It was natural to feel a sense that something was left incomplete.

Kelly Landen, who graduated from SMU in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Strategic Communications and minors in Advertising and Psychology, saw her restaurant public relations job evaporate in mid-March of 2020. She tried hanging out her shingle and soon realized she faced huge obstacles: not merely a pandemic that had seized up the economy but her lack of knowledge about the inner workings of running a company as well. She knew she needed a stronger foundation.

Robby Porter, who majored in finance at Texas A&M, jokes now that in 2020 he was part of the class that went on spring break and never returned. But he was looking forward to a promising summer after an internship the previous year had turned into a job offer in corporate finance. Then, two weeks before he was to start working, the offer disappeared. “I’m dead in the water,” he thought. The one-time college cadet went home to stay with his parents. He made deliveries for DoorDash as he thought about how to get his career back on track.

Three years later, these three are among the first cohort to complete the newest degree program at SMU Cox School of Business: the MBA Direct, a part-time online MBA program designed to welcome early-career professionals who work and gain their crucial first years of professional experience as they study.

Traditional MBA routes often require students to work for three or four years before heading into a full-time two-year MBA program. SMU Cox has also long offered MBA program options to students who want to work toward their MBA while continuing their employment: Professional MBA, Executive MBA and Online MBA. The newest program, however, gets recent college graduates to an MBA in 33 months.

The first cohort to graduate from the new program—28 of the 36 students who started in the fall of 2020—could hardly have picked a more pivotal time to level up their degree. Two members of the original cohort graduated a semester early, four others will graduate in December 2023 or May 2024 and two left the program. The students who made it through found that they were able to push their careers ahead as they completed their MBAs.

The majority of students who began the MBA Direct degree program in the Fall of 2020 went through classes together for three years and became the program’s inaugural graduates on May 13.

Addressing a Gap in the System

The MBA Direct program was the only program to which Constantine applied. Taking just three classes per term allowed him to keep his day job—a job that, during the depths of the pandemic, demanded his full attention during working hours.

Grocery store customers cleared out the shelves of basic necessities, as in the run on toilet paper no one really saw coming. Or the shortage of beef—a perishable good for which the grocer had to constantly find new sources as vendors struggled with their own supply chain snags—that turned logistics into a game of chess. The store had to limit what people could buy to keep from selling out of essentials.

“It was a survive-and-advance mentality,” Constantine says.

Even as he honed his skills in one of the most trying times on record for logistics workers, he still felt he wanted to push himself. And to do so ahead of the usual schedule for MBA students.

“I knew I wanted to elevate my career, and I knew that I wanted to go back to school sooner rather than later,” Constantine says. “I was in the rhythm of things. But something I worried about when I went to start applying was that usually, distinguished grad programs require extensive work experience. And that was something I just didn’t have yet.”

Senior Assistant Dean Jason Rife started at SMU Cox in the summer of 2019, leading the Cox Career Management Center. In early 2020 as the pandemic hit, he took over Graduate Admissions. “In a prior higher ed position at the University of Florida and here,” he says, “I saw a desire among really hard-charging students who were relatively new out of undergrad to go ahead and get the MBA.”

The snag for most schools isn’t that promising applicants are in short supply. Rather, most jobs that would fit a freshly graduated MBA student—consulting, brand management, corporate finance, banking, whatever it might be—typically insist on hiring someone with at least a couple of years of working experience. “If you’re really trying to break in and get a strong six-figure salary coming out, you’re not going to be eligible for those without work experience by the time you graduate,” Rife says. A school like the Cox School of Business might make exceptions for dual degree programs, such as joint law or master’s degrees. Even then, the MBA programs are built to advance students who arrive with at least a couple of years of experience in the working world. A student without professional background is, in effect, a non-traditional student.

But it was clear to the admissions officers at SMU Cox that many exceptional people were keen to return to school for their MBAs before completing two years of work. “We saw the demand for it,” Rife says. “We saw talented people who had great jobs. They’d be working for companies like AT&T or IBM, or Deloitte. We knew they would perform well because we’d see their academic background and professional experience … and started saying, ‘OK, if we want to bring them into the program, how could we make this work and do the right thing for the students?’”

High-achieving students aren’t particularly known for their patience, and if they don’t find their way into a particular business school, they’re likely to look for another. Yet the admissions team at Cox wanted to ensure that the students would see the backend return on their time and money. “MBA programs are not inexpensive,” Rife says. “You’re making that big investment. We started looking at options. What would we want to do if we were going to set up students for success and give them a solid ROI?”

On Commencement Day, Robby Porter flashes a smile upon completing his MBA Direct program.

Finding an Innovative Solution

Out of those conversations came the MBA Direct. The program needed to be flexible on the likely chance that an early-career student could be asked to move or change jobs. And the curriculum needed to be set at a level that would be challenging without swamping them—students would be studying under the same demanding faculty as other online or working professional programs.

Leveraging the existing online curriculum, the school built the MBA Direct program to accommodate those students who were getting their bearings as professionals. Students can adjust the program to move slower and reduce their course load to a level that won’t hamper them at their day jobs. They get the same access to career services and dedicated professional and interview coaching as other MBA students, as well as an academic plan allowing them to graduate with three years of professional experience, making them eligible for MBA-level positions. They also have access to campus, where they can join in-person career fairs or other networking events.

The result, Rife says, is an MBA program that feels tailored for the reality of work in a post-COVID world, even if the launch of the MBA Direct wasn’t originally conceived as a response to the pandemic per se. Rather, the program was built to cultivate talented young go-getters who seem more likely than ever to approach business school. Students with experience in fields such as technology, real estate and consulting, Rife says, arrive with a basic functional understanding of their industry but realize they will be limited until they get more formal business training.

Having a job is a requisite for entry to the program, says Hannah Nousain, the program’s director of admissions. A career outside the classroom is key to being ready to compete against more-experienced MBAs once the program finishes. And applicants must show promise for what they’ll bring to the group—ideally, a sense of initiative and a willingness to engage with their cohort.

“Although this program is delivered mostly online, class sizes are small, and in the live class sessions, we expect participation and discussion,” she says. “I want candidates who are going to be invested in the Cox Community by sharing their own experiences, asking questions and have a desire to learn about other perspectives and ways of thinking about the world.”

Students might come in with a full plan of the venture they want to launch. Or they may arrive intending to focus on their side hustle and, within a year or two, decide their future looks brighter if they join a large, established company. Still, others arrive with a job they like at a company that treats them well, and over the course of a degree program, find their eyes open to options they didn’t even know existed.

Gabe Constantine and his MBA Direct classmates prepare to walk across the commencement stage in May.

A Balancing Act

Before the students could broaden their horizons, they had to juggle a demanding schedule. This is the other side of being a student in a hybrid program. Work has to come first. But also, school has to come first.

Gabe Constantine put his logistics and time management skills to good use. During the week, he’d log on for classes after work, usually two or three nights a week between Monday and Friday, at 6:30 or 8:15 p.m. For most students in the program, that means logging on at home after a workday that might also be remote or require a commute. When Constantine began the program, he was in the latter group, working at the warehousing division of H-E-B. At the end of his day, he would clock out, head home, shower, maybe eat dinner, and settle in for class. On other days, if time was short, he’d log in at his desk at work.

Kelly Landen’s first internship in corporate finance meant the end of the quarter brought a stack of challenges. Her crunch time was spent working on expense reports and budgeting in December. Getting through budgets as well as schoolwork kept her working some nights until 4 a.m., but even during regular weeks, she tended to work late.

“If you had asked 18-year-old me, a freshman at SMU, I would’ve never guessed that I would’ve done things from 8 to 11 p.m.,” she says. She became a master of time management, so much so that when she saw an opportunity to advance in her existing job position just a few months before her scheduled degree program completion, she accelerated her pace to complete the program in December rather than May—one of two members of the inaugural MBA Direct cohort to do so.

Students are encouraged to adjust their schedules to optimize their experience.

However, Nousain reminds applicants, “The average amount of work experience for MBA Direct students starting the program is about 15 months, so when they graduate after another 33 months, they’re right on track with what MBA employers are looking for. Graduating in fewer than 33 months might impact the starting salary an MBA Direct student is offered since they wouldn’t have as much work experience as other graduates applying for those same MBA roles.”

Robby Porter kept to a schedule befitting a former cadet: up at the crack of dawn to work out, commuting and working from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., followed by classes two nights a week, when he would work from home. “Saturdays, I would just grind all day and catch up on the stuff I missed,” he says.

The weeks were long, but the students survived and advanced. They found that professors were available during office hours and by email, the Cox Career Management Center was also on-call for questions about jobs and career paths, and they could access tutors. Along the way, they all discovered ways the program surprised them.

In December 2022, MBA Direct May ’23 and Aug. ’23 students hoisted the SMU flag together during a global immersion trip to study unique business models in Santiago, Chile.

Forging Lifelong Connections

Constantine, for one, found the cohort more diverse than he was expecting. Young though they were, his classmates were employed across various industries. Taken as a whole, they offered each other a sense of connectivity throughout many corners of the business world—illuminating possible pathways into different career fields for one another. Constantine also found that gender equality, racial diversity and varying levels of industry background among his classmates were better than he’d expected.

“They did a great job putting together a cohort,” he says. “The diversity and different backgrounds represented throughout the program is something I was really happy to see. Especially being African American, it was something I was worried about going into it. But I was definitely surprised to not feel like an outsider.”

Through the first year and a half, the students got to know one another mainly through the usual distance work and learning channels: group projects coordinated by email, discussions over Zoom, various texts, chats and digital communications. Then their second winter together brought a welcome change of pace. The whole class joined an immersion experience that saw them spend four days in Chile for an adventure that was part work, part professional retreat. Other MBA cohorts take their trip to different cities and continents, depending on their projects; the MBA Direct group focused a semester-long class on preparing to consult for startups at various stages.

In Santiago, groups of students met with founders to present findings on how they could grow, consulting with pre-revenue companies that still needed a business plan or startups trying to figure out how to deploy their products. And while they were in Chile, they finally got to know one another in the ways that colleagues can get only from in-person meetings—zip lining, hiking in the mountains, visiting a winery. In short, they enjoyed the memory-making activities that turn a required class into a lifelong touchpoint.

“Getting to meet up in person, it was almost like a reunion,” Constantine says. “It was just really cool, after all that time, getting together and hanging out in person. We had relationships before that, but that truly solidified those bonds. Now I know I have a group of people I could text or call on whenever, and they’re there to help me, and I’m there to help them.”

Graduating Ahead of the Curve

Kelly Landon, part of the original MBA Direct cohort, expedited her studies and completed the program in December 2022.

The relationships built are just a snapshot of the transformative nature of the new MBA Direct program. Most striking is the career-vaulting effect the program has had, as its first cohort graduates with job offers, promotions and all-around success at unprecedented levels.

Landen chose the program knowing she needed to develop her foundational business knowledge. “I had zero confidence in myself that I was able to go into this industry,” she says. That changed throughout mock interviews with the Career Management Center, who over time guided her through the basics she would need to command a room. They’d interview, assign her reading and they would try again. Gradually she felt the improvement.

She’s now working in wealth management, a trajectory that would’ve shocked her when she began the program. “I realized I have all the abilities,” she says. “It was a matter of sitting down, putting my nose in a book and finding something that sparked my curiosity.” Having graduated early, Landen is now an associate banker at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.

Constantine’s sense of something left unfinished has dissipated thanks to the academic opportunity he found in the SMU Direct MBA program. The prospect of balancing a job with a degree program made him anxious at first. Admissions officers reassured him they wouldn’t have brought him into the program if they didn’t have full confidence that he would thrive.

Long workdays turned into even longer nights spent studying, but Constantine did indeed flourish and has grown immensely both professionally and personally.

Porter arrived in the program with a strong background in the theory of finance. He found himself leveling up quickly in the instruction on applying classroom knowledge to real companies. “They taught us from the ground up how to do accounting, management and strategy,” he says. He particularly took to the training on thinking like a consultant: “Look at a problem, break it down into smaller problems, then come up with small solutions working backward to attack the big problem.”

At his day job, he proposed a new revenue stream for a client, a chain of cinemas, that led to a test partnership with Uber Eats, delivering concession popcorn and candy to customers at their homes. “I attribute that directly to thinking about how SMU taught us to look at problems,” he says. Porter graduated with a job offer from PepsiCo-Frito-Lay to begin as a strategic finance associate manager post-commencement.

That skill-building has leveled up the students graduating into new jobs, higher-level roles and even unexpected fields. The future is wide open for them—and for the next MBA Direct cohorts who will follow in their footsteps. If the class of 2023 has proved anything, beyond their own talents, it’s that this new way to MBA works. And it’s here to stay.