BY Rich GrisetFebruary 08, 2022, 2:40 PM
Students attend class at North Carolina State University’s Jenkins Graduate College of Management in Raleigh in September 2021.
Logan Cyrus—Bloomberg/Getty Images
The amount of digital data we create every day is staggering in scale. In 2020, we created, captured, copied, and consumed an estimated 64.2 zettabytes of digital data, according to Statista. (To appreciate just how big that is, one zettabyte alone could store 30 billion 4K movies.) With so much information constantly flowing back and forth in the digital realm, companies desperately need people who can analyze that data and use it to create actionable strategies to increase or maintain profitability.
That’s where business analytics comes in—a field that looks to understand and develop new business insights based on data. Companies of practically any size in every industry want workers who can analyze big data sets, so master’s degree programs in business analytics have been popping up at schools with great speed over the past decade. Grads with this degree have proved invaluable to companies; in turn, they are rewarded with high pay.
But with so much changing in the digital realm, how are business analytics programs working to stay relevant in the future? Here’s what some experts in the field told Fortune.
Demand for business analytics degrees and graduates
When it comes to job desirability, it’s hard to top being knowledgeable in business analytics. People in data analysis and data science roles are experiencing the most increasing demand across all industries, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report. The same report holds that business analysis is likely to be among the top skills required of future data jobs.
Business analytics programs report high demand from prospective students. The master’s degree program at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business reports that only 199 students were admitted of the 915 completed applications for the class entering fall 2021—for an acceptance rate of almost 22%. By comparison, the comparable program at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business reported 2,956 applicants vying for 189 slots last fall.
When USC began exploring the creation of a business analytics program, there was initially some concern internally that it would dilute the school’s other offerings, recalls Dawn Porter, academic director for the master’s degree program and professor of clinical data sciences and operations management.
“It’s gone from hesitation from an academic perspective to everybody wants to do it now,” she says of the program USC began offering in 2014; the Marshall School now offers 13 specialized master’s degrees. “It was a big step in moving from general management kinds of degrees to actually zooming in on a particular subject.”
The curriculums in these master’s degree programs prepare students for solid career prospects. Among the 2021 graduating class in business analytics at USC, more than 94% of students were employed within three months of graduating. At the University of Texas, some 79% of the school’s 2021 graduates in a comparable program found employment within 90 days of graduation.
“The field has become very competitive, and the demands from businesses have also increased,” says Genaro Gutierrez, the faculty program director for business analytics at UT Austin and an associate professor in its Department of Information, Risk, and Operations Management.
How are programs adapting to change in the field?
With the growing use of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the field of business analytics—as well as the potential operations someone may be asked to perform—master’s degree programs have had to adapt to meet demand. One way is by adding courses.
“The landscape is just constantly moving,” Porter says. “At USC, we are trying to pivot whenever we need to. We are constantly assessing what [the] new trends are and incorporating new courses into our curriculum. The easiest way that has happened, generally, is by introducing new elective classes. We have a rotating portfolio of interesting elective classes.”
Porter says USC tries to keep tabs on industries that hire its students and see what new skills they may be looking for in order to stay relevant. And as student interests grow in a certain realm of analytics, USC endeavors to create a course in that field.
“Every industry is looking for a data analyst or a business analyst, so our elective classes are just all over the place,” Porter says, adding that USC’s business analytics program has included electives that focus on sports, health care, gaming, supply chain, and data warehousing. As for the business analytics programs that will do the best job preparing today’s students for the realities of business analyst roles in the future? “Ones that offer specialization or specialized tracks,” she adds.
UT Austin is taking a similar approach while maintaining a fundamental curriculum, says Gutierrez, adding that businesses are becoming more interested in domain-specific analytics. “It’s not just some knowledge of analytics, but analytics applied in a business domain. I think that’s the major change” taking place now, he says.
Many programs are also embracing consulting-based project courses where schools partner with businesses to give them feedback on real problems. These projects help students gain experience and learn the ropes while assisting actual businesses.
“That is something that is going to be incredibly important,” Porter says. Learning “really needs to be couched in real-world applications and real-world data.”
Success comes not just from being able to conduct modeling and statistics, but also an ability to communicate information in an accessible way, says Tania Wang, a senior data scientist at management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group and a graduate of USC’s program.
“Especially in the business world, you need to communicate the impact of the work to a client or stakeholder,” she says. “You need to really elaborate clearly, in laymen’s terms, what [does this data] mean.”
Gutierrez says graduates who can organize their own data sets, run algorithms, make sense of them, and communicate solutions will see high interest from employers.
“It’s hard to achieve all of that,” he says. “That’s why we require a very special student from the get-go.”
What about online programs?
As with just about everything else in the pandemic, many graduate level business analytics programs made the pivot to online learning as a way to promote safety. UT Austin will introduce a new part-time business analytics program remotely that offers both synchronous and asynchronous content; that cohort will begin classes in summer 2023.
Similarly, the sudden immersion in digital learning is one USC may make permanent. This fall, it is running a beta test of an online cohort.
“Now that we know how to do this, we want to open ourselves up to the online community,” says Porter, adding that from Los Angeles, the school is now educating students from as far as China, India, and the Middle East. “There are a lot of people who don’t have the ability or the desire to drop what they are doing and move for a year and a half, two years, and get these skills.”
See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.