Master of Finance Degree Sets Up Grads for the Digital Economy
April 8, 2021 | By Stephen Caldwell
Note: This is part of a series of articles on the five newest master’s degree programs offered by the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Faculty members Cash Acrey and Wayne Lee provided insights and information for this article.
The finance faculty at the University of Arkansas began noticing a trend a few years ago during field trips to visit companies across the region. While job titles remained largely unchanged, descriptions of the actual work finance majors were doing was shifting.
The marketplace was moving from a physical economy to a digital economy, and so, too, were the responsibilities of finance professionals. Financial modeling and analysis remained important skills for finance majors, and that wasn’t going to change. To be successful in finance, however, graduates also would need to increase their awareness, understanding and use of technology.
Rapid advances in information technology have made the storage, retrieval, and analysis of massive troves of data in real time possible, and this has led to new business models and changes in the ways businesses are managed. As a result, employers are looking for bright, technologically astute finance majors who can create and shape decisions. So, with input and discussions from employers and after studying the marketplace in more detail, the Sam M. Walton College of Business launched a new Master of Science in Finance with concentrations in four areas: energy finance and risk management; business analytics; digital technology; and supply chain management.
The new master’s program prepares students to address the data-driven and increasingly gig-oriented modern economy’s unique challenges when it comes to strategic investment and financing decisions. The finance department partnered with other Walton College departments to offer a program with cutting-edge technical courses around topics such as machine learning, database management, the use of blockchain distributed digital ledgers to finance trade inventory and receivables in supply chains, digital banking and payment systems, and data analytics.
In years past, master’s-level finance programs typically produced graduates for niche jobs primarily with Wall Street firms. If you wanted to work on things like high-frequency arbitrage, algorithmic trading, and simulation-based derivative pricing models, then that was your ticket. The U of A program, however, is broad-based and focuses on giving graduates the skills to adapt to changes in technology and innovation in industries like retail, commercial banking and venture capital.
The 30-hour program can be completed in one year, but working professionals have the option of finishing it over five semesters. Many of the top candidates for the degree come from the undergraduate finance program, but students majoring in other business disciplines as well as non-business majors in STEM-related fields also do well. The first cohort, for instance, included a student with a doctorate in chemistry and another with a degree in engineering.
The job market for graduates, like the program itself, is incredibly broad. Fintech start-ups need financial analysts with a strong technology background, but so do existing companies that are adapting legacy business models to the digital economy. Goldman Sachs, for instance, traditionally an investment banking firm, launched an online consumer-focused banking and credit service only to see the top two leaders of that initiative recruited by Walmart in its efforts to expand into digital financial services. Manufacturers also need expertise to make trade financing in a supply chain more cost efficient. And retailers need help with building digital transactions platforms and payment systems around an omni-channel marketing strategy.
The job titles for these graduates still look much the same – financial analysts, financial specialists, budget analysts and the like – but the requirements to do the jobs and advance to higher level jobs now involve the flexibility to think beyond finance theories and apply technology-based solutions. Regardless of the industry, finance experts with this added level of education are well-positioned for wherever business goes next.