There are, Stephen Parente estimates, nearly 13,000 congressional staffers in Washington, D.C. — most of them under 30, with little or no business experience. And they’re the ones drafting the laws that regulate American industries.

That’s why Parente, an economist at the University of Minnesota, has created an MBA program just for them.

Last week, the U’s Board of Regents gave its approval to launch the new MBA program, an intense, one-year online degree tailored specifically to people who work, or have worked, on Capitol Hill.

The idea, says Parente, came up at a brainstorming session at the Carlson School of Management, where he’s an associate dean. He and his colleagues were looking for new ways to market the Carlson brand in light of declining enrollment in some of its traditional MBA programs.

Parente knew, from personal experience, how much Congress relies on young, relatively inexperienced staffers. In the 1990s, he worked for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, and later served as health adviser to Sen. John McCain.

Those staffers, he said, tend to be liberal arts grads and quick studies, but they lack deep understanding about the business world. What they know, he said, they learn “mostly by osmosis by talking to experts.”

In March, Parente decided to test the market, inviting congressional aides to a Capitol Hill bar called Hawk ’n’ Dove to hear about the MBA project. “We had the highest turnout they’ve ever had for a happy hour; 250 people crammed into this little bar,” he said. “They swarmed” his team with questions.

Parente hopes to begin the first class with 25-30 students next June. Tuition is expected to run somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000; but given the traditionally low pay in those jobs, he’s raising money for scholarships.

When they started planning the courses, Parente said, he and his colleagues inadvertently left out one subject: ethics. “[We] realized for Congress, that was a bad idea,” he said. “We all chuckled, like, yeah, it’s got to be there.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com