MBA: A Mere Option
So many executives have enjoyed stellar careers without the benefit of a master’s of business administration that its value is clearly overrated. Pro or con?
Pro: Save Your Cash
Some of the best businesspeople I know don’t even have an undergraduate degree, let alone an advanced one. During the Internet boom, people dropped out of the best undergraduate and MBA programs to pursue once-in-a-lifetime career opportunities. Famous MBA dropouts include Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer and filmmaker Georgia Lee, who left Harvard Business School and was discovered by Martin Scorsese (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/20/06, “Unfinished Business: Is the Degree Key?”).
Business school might improve your quantitative, presentation, and communication skills. It might even get you thinking about ethics and strategy. But two years of case studies aren’t going to turn you into a leader if you weren’t born one. There’s no learning charisma, persuasiveness, elegance, or gut instinct.
If you’re going to B-school to acquire a network, you’re not taking advantage of the one already in front of you—alumni from your undergraduate institution, professional organizations, your current and past colleagues, and all sorts of Internet communities. These folks already have relationships with people who can help you advance, whereas you’ll have to wait for fellow MBA students to graduate, get back in the game, and help themselves first.
In fact, only 20% of 133 top international executives said that an MBA prepares people to deal with the real-life challenges that a manager must face, according to a recently released report from executive search firm Egon Zehnder International.
The average age for B-school is 28, when most people are just starting to hit their stride on the job. And those who usually enter top MBA programs already have high salaries and exceptional skill levels. If you want to get ahead, you can do so without an MBA. Who wants to pull himself out of circulation for two years and take on hefty loans to go to university a second time? Certainly not someone with a nose for a good deal.
Con: Many Happy Returns
No single opportunity can so dramatically alter an individual’s career path or earning potential like an MBA. In less than two years, a student can obtain the knowledge, skills, perspective, and networks that otherwise would take a lifetime to acquire.
The best programs integrate theory and practice, and foster an intense collaborative environment among talented faculty, experienced professionals, and the bright, inquisitive minds of a diverse set of students. MBA students expose themselves to leading research, new ideas, and innovative best practices, and have opportunities to explore and take risks they would not be able to afford on the job.
Consumers are smart. If business schools were failing to keep pace with the knowledge, skills, and abilities students consider critical, we wouldn’t see increasing applications. The 2006 issue of the Application Trends Survey Report, published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), reports that application volume has risen about two-thirds for full-time, two-year, part-time, and executive programs. At the Johnson School, applications have increased 30% over last year.
Likewise, corporate demand for MBAs remains strong, and corporate recruiter data show business schools are fulfilling the needs of companies and providing the kinds of future leaders organizations require. According to GMAC’s Corporate Recruiters Survey (April, 2007), companies plan to increase the number of new business-graduate hires by 18%. Moreover, according to the National Association of Colleges & Employers’ Job Outlook 2007 survey, employers that said they recruit MBA graduates are planning to hire 22% more of them than they did in 2005-06.
Finally, a look at the return on investment for a full-time, two-year MBA program in BusinessWeek’s ROI calculator reveals the annual 10-year ROI for the top schools ranges from 15.9% to 22.3% when using the calculator’s set defaults. Few investments generate those returns over 10 years or even over a lifetime of productive employment.
Because students continue to enroll and corporations continue to hire MBAs, business schools can reasonably conclude they are providing what both types of customers want—a well-rounded, hands-on education that produces extraordinary business leaders who have outstanding technical abilities and add value by seizing opportunities, setting direction, motivating action, and delivering results.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.