It’s brutal out there for an MBA applicant. On one hand, you have to consider rankings. On another hand, you have to consider your own goals and which school can best help you achieve them. On a third hand (or foot), you have to weigh your chances of getting in given your stats. And to further complicate things, you have elitist snobs writing articles like “If You Can’t Get Into a Top Five MBA Program, Don’t Even Bother.”
Now, I completely agree with the premise that you should go to the best program you can get into. But the article’s author Jay Bhatti, a 2002 Wharton graduate with a chip on his shoulder (or perhaps a blog traffic quota to meet), follows an absurd line of logic to its controversial conclusion: That there’s no point in getting an MBA unless it comes from Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, MIT or Kellogg. These five schools, he claims, are the only ones that offer return on investment in an increasingly MBA-averse business climate.
First of all, let’s consider the rather arbitrary nature of the schools he selected. Rankings vary from year to year and publication to publication, and even these five schools move up and down within the top ten. Business Week’s #1 ranked school for 2013 is University of Chicago Booth, a school unmentioned in Bhatti’s article. Furthermore, it’s absurd to claim that the quality of MBA programs drops off drastically at #6. What does that mean for Duke, Dartmouth, Columbia, NYU, and Yale? No one in their right mind would argue that these are second-class institutions.
Second, it’s important to realize that business school rankings are based on alumni and recruiter satisfaction surveys, a method which is inherently biased against smaller programs. As UCLA Finance professor Ivo Welch notes, “the correlation between the historical size of a school’s graduating classes and its BW [Business Week] ranking is very high.” Programs that are unable to garner the minimum number of responses are not ranked at all. Additionally, responses from the current year are weighted with responses from up to six years prior, which means that the rankings are very slow to recognize up-and-coming schools.
Lastly, the argument that only top MBA programs are worth attending disregards the variety of legitimate reasons why someone might choose to attend business school. We’re not talking about making partner at McKinsey or becoming the CEO of Proctor and Gamble. We’re talking about solid, practical steps to improving one’s career opportunities. And if these are your goals, then earning an MBA – any MBA, even in a mid-ranked program – will be a step in the right direction:
- To switch industries
- To switch functional focus (marketing, operations, finance, etc.)
- To jumpstart a stalled career
- To break into management
- To gain general business knowledge for entrepreneurial pursuits
- To build a network or get established in a certain region
- To erase a non-business undergraduate degree
Let’s consider some sobering statistics: Wharton takes about 800 students per year. GMAC estimates that nearly 200,000 MBA applications were submitted for the class of 2012. Assuming that each applicant applied to four schools, that’s 50,000 total applicants, which means that only 1.6% of those applicants could have attended Wharton. If we were to be generous and include the other top five programs in this calculation, then 8% of applicants would be able to attend a “worthwhile” MBA program. And the rest of us? Just out in the cold, I guess.
Mr. Bhatti states that “Many of my classmates from the Wharton Class of 2002 complain that their MBA was only valuable during their first job out of school.” To this I say, Well, duh! The MBA is a differentiator, a tool, and a benchmark. But it is not a magic key that will open doors for the rest of your life. Only your continually strong performance and perseverance can help you advance past that first job. But here’s the thing: That first job matters. It is a stepping stone to greater things, if you use it correctly. And to many students, especially those with non-traditional backgrounds, that job opportunity would never have appeared if they hadn’t gone to business school. So maybe MBAs who want to rest on their laurels should step aside and let the hard-working among us climb the ladder.