Taking the less-known route

"We're kind of putting a toe in the water" as the program builds name recognition in the market beyond its estimated 30,000 alumni in the Chicago area, said B.J. Newmister, associate director of MBA program at the Normal-based school.

The caution is an acknowledgment that employers are cutting back on tuition reimbursement for education, he said.

Because the program is starting small, its niche is really that it has no niche. The school's goal is simply to deliver a solid core business degree with tenured faculty who ride the train from Normal to teach weekend courses.

"Doing our due diligence, we found that maybe some weekend programs weren't using their full, tenured faculty," Newmister said. "We wanted to stress this isn't a watered-down version" of the program.

Industry specialization has worked well for Roosevelt as it tries to find its niche, DeVries said, despite the wrenching real estate crash.

"Chicago's a real estate town. We came along and filled a gap the industry wanted," he said, referring to the school's decision 11 years ago to offer an MBA with a real estate concentration. Enrollment has more than doubled since the first year, to about 60 students, he said.

Sevara Sherman, 30, graduated from the program in 2008 as real estate values around the country were plummeting, real estate agents were leaving the field and deals couldn't be closed because of the mortgage crisis. Before entering the program, she had worked as an agent and at the Illinois Housing Development Authority but wanted to break into the commercial real estate private sector.

"A lot of our professors were working in the market, and they would tell us that a lot of people were getting laid off," she said. "It was a scary time for them too."

She landed a job three years ago at Jones Lang LaSalle and today oversees property management for 116 Bank of America properties in three states, she said.

The initial job lead came from a friend, but she said she believes the networking and curriculum at Roosevelt made the difference in getting hired.

"Students get a lot of chances to get to know people in the industry," DeVries said. "I tell people, if they get through this program and don't know a lot of people, they've been asleep."

About accreditation

Only 15 Illinois-based institutions are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. They are Bradley University, DePaul University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois State University, Loyola University Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, SIU at Edwardsville, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Springfield, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Western Illinois University.

Some experts say accreditation is most important for students who expect to go on to a doctorate program or who may transfer to a region of the country where the school is unknown.

AACSB International is changing its accreditation standards to reflect a keener focus on more real-world curriculum trends, said Robert Reid, the organization's executive vice president and chief accreditation officer.

For accredited and member schools, go to aacsb.edu.