Sunday, September 27, 2009

Valuing an MBA and Why I Ignored the Advice to Pick a Backup School

Having decided to pursue a full-time MBA, the next step was to start choosing schools. I knew that the application process would be time consuming and expensive (although I underestimated just how time consuming and expensive), and would therefore only be able to apply to a couple of schools.

I started by looking at business school rankings, which is exactly what everyone says you shouldn't do (but probably what everyone actually does). As they say, business school rankings are arbitrary and subjective, and there probably isn't an important difference in the quality of instruction between top-tier and solid second-tier programs.

That said, the full value of an MBA cannot be reduced to the strength of its classes and professors. In my opinion this is only one of three characteristics that determine the value of an MBA:

  • Coursework: the value of the hard and soft business skills that come from business school classes.
  • Connections: the value of the relationships you build during business school, which is tied to the ambitions and ability of your classmates and the strength of the alumni network.
  • Credentials: the value that derives from the credibility or brand value of the degree itself. The value of the MBA credential is linked to the ranking of the school it came from.
It follows that the person who will benefit the most from business school is the one who utterly lacks business skills, connections, and credentials; the value of the MBA begins to diminish for someone who has any of these.

In general, it seems clear that business degrees are more valuable to younger people than they are to older ones. For someone who has nearly a decade of work experience and a graduate degree in a related field, the value of an MBA comes primarily from the connections and the credential. This means it is more important for a person in this situation to find a school that will maximize the return in these two areas, which typically means a top-tier school.

Also, taking time away from a career in your early-30s is a much bigger gamble than it is during your early- or mid-20s. You're more established in your career, you're earning more money - so the potential payoff needs to be much bigger to justify the risk. Poker players call this "pot odds": if you're gambling less money, a large payoff isn't as important as it is when you're gambling a lot of money.

If the value of a second-tier program for someone in their early 30s is relatively low, while the risk of taking time away from a career at this stage is relatively high, a second-tier program might not make sense. This reasoning argues for an all-or-nothing strategy for people in this situation.

This analysis cuts differently for younger candidates, who may place greater value on the MBA coursework, and for candidates considering an EMBA program, who are arguably wagering less, given that they'll continue to earn their salary and gain job experience. In either case, a good second-tier school may be an excellent choice.

With this analysis in mind, I decided I would only apply to top-tier schools. I hadn't yet taken the GMAT and I wasn't sure how strong my application would be, so I would need to get an unbiased opinion on the matter before investing the time and money in the application process. If my prospects for getting into a top school didn't look good, I decided I wouldn't apply at all. I would either need to strengthen my application or explore other options.

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