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MBA programs at some women's colleges are breaking into the upper 5 percent of business schools, gaining accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. in January became the second women's college in the world to receive AACSB accreditation. Since Simmons College in Boston became the first to earn that distinction last year, enrollment in its MBA program has increased 20 percent, BusinessWeek reports. A third women's institution, which the story doesn't name, is seeking to become accredited.

Deborah Merrill-Sands, the dean of Simmons' School of Management, says she sought the AACSB seal of approval to erase any perception of "a soft MBA or an MBA-lite," as well as "certain gender stereotypes. By having the accreditation, that question is off the table," she told the magazine. Indeed, the AACSB label is viewed by many in the management education world as the gold standard for B-school approval, BusinessWeek notes. It's held by 579 institutions, comprising less than 5 percent of the world's 12,000 business schools.

Broadening Academic Offerings

Simmons, Meredith and other women's colleges that traditionally concentrated on liberal arts are responding to market demand by introducing more professional degree programs - engineering, medicine and pharmacology as well as business. Forty-four women's colleges offer a business management curriculum. Including co-ed institutions, 37.5 percent of MBA students in AACSB U.S. member schools in 2009 were female, compared with 36.2 percent in 2004. (Among undergrads at AACSB schools, however, the proportion of women business majors dropped to 42.8 percent from 44.7 percent.)

Subtle curriculum elements impart a women's flavor, although quality and rigor is comparable with programs at coed institutions. At Meredith, for example, BusinessWeek observes:

Students in the school's organization behavior class are required to write a paper about a female business leader and her career path, says Susan Wessels, the business school's department head and professor of accounting. Women executives frequently visit the school, and students organize a business fashion show every year. But perhaps most important, the all-female environment helps boost students' confidence, she says.

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