How does a regional school outsmart the likes of Stanford and Yale?

Duquesne University

Duquesne University - How does a regional school outsmart the likes of Stanford and Yale?

Duquesne University may have built the best MBA Sustainability program of its kind, anywhere in the world. The problem? It had no real plan for reaching a global market to attract right-fit students, faculty or potential corporate partners.

Conventional Wisdom

Duquesne University invested two years time and considerable resources to launch its new 11-month, full-time MBA Sustainability degree. Many competitors settled for retrofitting an existing MBA with a sampling of sustainability courses and content. Duquesne instead chose to build its degree from the ground up, convincing faculty to rethink and remake every course, even those from the MBA core. The daring they showed on the program side did not carry over to outreach and enrollment marketing. Having operated a very successful evening MBA for years, Duquesne continued to think small.

Expectations and first-year applications remained appropriately low for a modest-by-nature Catholic school that had never ventured beyond regional markets. Acceptance rates topped 85 percent. Marketing plans settled for incremental gains in inquiries, applications and market reach.

Elliance Perspective

While it's natural to gauge how a new degree will help students, it’s less obvious to ask how the right mix of students will enhance a new academic program.

Elliance recognized that the full promise of new Duquesne business school faculty and a breakthrough MBA Sustainability program design might lay dormant without more right-fit students. We saw higher student quality as a high priority “need,” not a nice-to-have “want.” Research told us that dozens of new competitors would be coming on line by year three. Without significant boosts in applications and expanded enrollment reach, the world's best MBA Sustainability program might continue with a very high acceptance rate, and find itself buried in an avalanche of better-known competitors.

Elliance Approach

Elliance Approach

Elliance saw a bright future for Duquesne's MBA in Sustainability

For starters, we knew its inherent quality and value: a power-packed, 11-month curriculum that takes risks, ventures far, and challenges closely-held assumptions about “sustainability.” Focus groups told us that while “alpha” prospects might come pre-sold on the idea of a niche MBA, the larger pool of “betas” needed some convincing.

Reaching and persuading the beta audience

Reaching the betas became the focal point through all phases of development – site maps, wireframes, information design and content strategy. Design, copy and messaging underscored the balanced tone and perspective of the Duquesne MBA – grounded in ethics, profit and innovation as well as environmental awareness.

The focus on reaching betas continued post-launch

Elliance researched and proposed a set of keyword clusters, including such phrases as “Top 100 MBA programs” that lie outside the inner circle of sustainability-related phrases. Today, Duquesne enjoys page one, number one Google positions for a dozen phrases – including some “halo effect” terms not in the SEM budget. The two sides of the equation – demand and conversion – are now in accord.


Enrollment more than doubled between year one and year three. Student quality soared: average GMATS climbed almost 40 points in less than two years. Top students came with GMATS above 600 – a new threshold. Inquires came from every continent. Acceptance rates dropped. The percentage of applicants with relevant and significant work experience rose from 25 percent to 88 percent.


A program built to inspire lasting change now attracts and admits a caliber of student fit for a global challenge.