'Certified' MBA Arrives Amid Controversy

A new certification test for MBAs could help IT pros seeking an executive management position stand out from the competition.
Techies wanting to obtain IT management executive positions sometimes turn to graduate school and MBAs as means of scaling the career ladder. But as the degree becomes more common place, an MBA may not be enough to differentiate a job candidate. In 2000, 112,258 people earned MBAs, 20% more than in 1995, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

A new certification test for MBAs hopes to level the playing field, providing much-needed differentiation for MBA graduates and hiring managers trying to find qualified job applicants.

International Certification Institute, which helped to develop the CMBA will begin offering the exam May 5. The CMBA will arrive on the scene amid mixed reception from MBAs, some of whom embrace the program, while other students, as well as business school administrators, question its necessity.

For $450 -- which includes $75 for application and transcript processing and $375 for the exam -- anyone with an MBA can sit the six-hour test at a Thompson Prometric testing center.

What the CMBA Tests

The 260 multiple choice questions attempt to gauge a CMBA candidate's knowledge of four common MBA core curriculum areas:

  • Financial reporting, analysis and markets
  • Domestic and global organizational economic environments
  • Creation and distribution of goods and services
  • And Human behavior in organizations
  • Test questions cover the gamut of knowledge, quizzing candidates on 10 different areas:

  • Financial accounting
  • Management accounting
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Microeconomics
  • Macroeconomics
  • Finance
  • Marketing management
  • Operating management
  • Organizational behavior
  • And strategy
  • Students wanting to prepare for the exam can refer to school notes and text books or a new study guide from South-Western publishers for $63.

    Test Unnecessary, Says Critic

    Although the test has been designed to test skills commonly taught in MBA programs, one critic says the CMBA can't predict whether or not a person will be an effective leader, something most hiring managers look for when bringing on new managers and executives.

    The test doesn't measure soft skills, said Kathleen Trexler, associate dean and director of the MBA program at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Attributes such as leadership, negotiation, and the ability to thrive in an ever increasing cross-cultural business environment are skills many MBAs require.

    Additionally, said Trexler, what the test certifies is already available to employers. Those wanting to judge an MBA's mastery of business administration subject matter need only request the student's university transcript.

    If the educational quality of the MBA program where the job candidate studied is in question, employers can verify if the institution has been accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

    The AACSB does rigorous assessments of educational institutions, examining things such as educational delivery, quality of faculty, structured learning and curriculum, and the school's level of scholarship in contributing to higher education and the business profession through research. Some 400 of the 900 schools with MBA degree programs have the AACSD accreditation.

    "I am not against students getting a certification for anything that will give them an advantage," said Trexler. "I just don't see the advantage [to the CMBA]." Trexler added that many of the MBA students she has spoken to at Lehigh about the CMBA were critical of it, if not insulted at the notion of getting certified after having earned their MBA.

    Offering Value to Some

    But Trexler did concede that students graduating from non-accredited institutions might benefit from the certification. It could demonstrate they possess the technical mastery of business administration skills. For students moving to regions where their non-accredited school has no name recognition, the CMBA might also be of value in demonstrating achievement.

    Regardless of where a person got their degree, though, CMBA candidates who were involved with the program's beta test said they believe the CMBA will help them stand out from the pack of MBAs.

    Ted Schleich, a software engineer at Tucson, Ariz.-based Universal Avionics Systems Corp. took the test to provide him with an extra credential.

    "The CMBA is a disinterested third party opinion," said Schleich, who earned his MBA/TM in 1999 from the University of Phoenix Southern Arizona Campus at Tucson.

    Kevin Davey, director of Quality Assurance at Cleveland-based Argo-Tech agreed.

    "To me, if two candidates were the same in terms of interviews and everything else, I would definitely lean toward the one who has it," he said. "It says they went the extra mile."

    The CMBA may become a great equalizer for some, but it's not likely to overshadow a university's prestige or ranking, said Davey. The ICI acknowledged that it will not be publishing comparative scores of graduates from various institutions. CMBA themselves said they don't expect the certification to help them beat out Harvard business school graduates.

    Davey, also a hiring manager, got his MBA/TM from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management, ranked among the top 50 U.S. business schools. He said if two job applicants both had the CMBA and one was a Harvard grad, he would still favor the MBA with the high-status diploma.

    "School ranking will still be important," he said.

    Excluding the Harvard and Stanford graduates and consider only those who went to middle-ranked schools, the CMBA may just make the difference between who gets the job and who doesn't, he noted.

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