No one can say that Cornell University's master's degree in real estate doesn't provide real world experience. Among students' class projects: evaluating raw land and providing a full-blown feasibility report to big builder clients such as Pulte Homes, Toll Brothers, Lennar Corp., and Southern California's Irvine Co.

Such coursework represents just one part of the curriculum at Cornell, which established the two-year program in 1986. (Universities such as Wisconsin, Johns Hopkins, New York University, Georgia State, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer similar degrees.) Designed to prepare students for residential or commercial real estate, the Cornell program accepts about 20 students annually, many of whom have worked in architecture, engineering, remodeling, or real estate finance. “They're drawn to it because they want to get the big picture and grasp how the industry works,” says Brad Olson, the program director, who previously worked for The Irvine Co. The Cornell students are certainly getting that information from people who know. The program's advisory board includes Toll Brothers CEO Robert Toll and Lennar COO Robert Strudler, both Cornell alums.

It's an obligation Toll was happy to incur. “I thought it would be a pleasure” to give back to Cornell in this way, says the CEO, whose company has hired nine project-managers-in-training from Cornell's real estate and MBA programs in the past two years.

Such an education isn't cheap, though. Tuition, room and board, and fees at Cornell run about $40,000 for a 12-month academic year, but the skills and background can prove invaluable as the financial and operational challenges of running a real estate company become greater and greater. “The complexity of getting things approved takes a level of sophistication and understanding on the part of management that's different than 15 years ago,” Olson says.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.