Fewer students are applying to US business schools. A study by the Graduate Management Admission Council of more than 1,000 MBA programs at 363 business schools found that 70 percent of them experienced declining applications in 2018. This drop affected the top-tier institutions along with the rest — Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton all saw single-digit dips in applications to their graduate business programs.
There are hints into the reason for this change of heart from potential MBA students behind recent headlines, which have decried the “ alarming decline of the MBA’s ‘value added ratio'” and noted “Nothing special: MBAs are no longer prized by employers.” The gist of such reports is that students and hiring managers alike have become more skeptical about whether the time and expense of earning an advanced business degree really pays off anymore.
Despite these claims, many career development experts, including William Taylor, career development officer at MintResume, still highly recommend earning a business degree — and not just for the confidence boost that it brings. “As a recruitment specialist, I know that a number of companies want to see their management-level employees have the accreditation, and people without the MBA qualification sometimes experience a glass ceiling,” said Taylor. “They find it difficult to move into higher-level positions. And, attending a business school also provides you with ample networking opportunities.”
Should you attend business school?
To help prospective business school candidates determine which way to go, Business Insider conducted an informal survey of 40 business professionals who had either attended business school, or considered it but decided against it. Opinions were evenly split between those who found the experience and outcomes of attending business school invaluable, and those who consciously vetoed the path to an MBA in favor of real-world business experience or other alternatives and now advise others to do the same. Below are some highlights that each side articulated about the pros and cons of attending business school.
First, the reasons in favor of attending business school.
MBA holder Shakun Bansal, who is head of marketing at the HR technology company Mercer-Mettl, had no work experience prior to landing his first job. Bansal thus found the MBA curriculum — which included building an understanding of end-to-end business operations plus functions like marketing, sales, project and product management, and revenue generation — to be quite helpful in preparing him for the corporate world.
“Education paves a path for you and instills the necessary attitude and skills to effectively and successfully handle the professional life to come,” said Bansal. His MBA program also paved the way to obtaining that first taste of work experience that he lacked, by providing him with the opportunity to serve as a summer research associate, which helped add more intangible skills like management, effective communication, and leadership to his expanding professional toolkit.
Business owner Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, has an MBA (as well as a JD) from Pepperdine University. Sweeney reports that her MBA with a focus in marketing has helped her “immensely” as a post-graduate, and believes it’s a wise move to attend business school — in part, because it can help you think more strategically.
“I’ve always had a mind toward business development — listening so that I can develop business and solve the problems of others, which leads to additional business,” said Sweeney. “But when you know more and have a great education, you are better equipped to understand nuances and strategies in business.”
Letters of reference
How much is a strong letter of reference worth? If it opens the door to a high-paying career, some respondents feel it’s well worth the price of MBA program, which averages $60,000 and can cost as much as $100,000 at a top business school.
“As an MBA grad, I found that my best letters of recommendation came from professors who knew my work ethic in class and as a research assistant,” said Sweeney. “I asked those professors who knew me best and could share genuine information about my work ethic, personal attitude, and who saw my work over time (both in class and outside of class). As a result, I feel these professors had the most influence on my future post-grad careers and provided unique insight to potential employers.”
As CEO and co-founder of Phone2Action and an entrepreneur who has founded three technology businesses, raising more than $6 million in investment capital, Jeb Ory is a business school success story — but he wasn’t always a proponent of the degree.
“I used to think business school wasn’t necessary, that it was just something average career professionals did who wanted to earn more money, that really talented business professionals didn’t need it,” said Ory. “After all, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates didn’t have MBAs, and PayPal founder Peter Thiel famously had a ‘no MBA’ policy at PayPal — so why get one?” But after making his decision to attend business school at the University of Chicago, Ory said he discovered something: “I was wrong, way wrong.”
One of the biggest reasons for his change in perspective was the massive networking opportunity that business school naturally provided. “You have to accept that not everyone is Zuckerberg or Gates or Thiel,” said Ory. “Learning from others is how most successful people build their careers. It feels like everyone in business school is looking to trade careers, so you meet people who are coming from the areas you are interested in going into. You learn how to think about key business drivers, and what makes various industries and organizations successful.”
After starting her career as a CPA, Erica Gellerman wanted to move into brand management. But when she attempted to make the career transition without going back to school, she discovered that her only option would have been to basically start from scratch and take a huge pay cut. She thus shifted gears and earned her MBA from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 2012.
“The two biggest pros for me of the business school route were being able to change careers easily and developing a great network of friends,” said Gellerman, who today runs a personal finance website called The Worth Project. “Going to business school, I was able to get an internship and job doing the exact role I wanted and my starting salary was significantly more than I was making before business school.”
The best reasons not to attend business school: Time ROI
Back when Shawn McBride, who is managing member of the R. Shawn McBride Law Firm, PLLC, was mulling over the possibility of going to business school, he easily identified some potential payoffs in terms of powerful networking and alumni opportunities. But after weighing in the cons of the endeavor — which he identified as time, cost, and lost opportunities while in school — he decided not to attend.
“For me, time was the biggest consideration,” said McBride. “Would I get as much return on my hours in business school as I would learning on my own, building my business and networking on my own?” McBride found that he could use hours that might have been spent studying to instead effectively expand his business — for example, by applying his learning and analysis skills toward writing his next business book. “It is my belief that in the modern world, self-directed learning can be more powerful than the classroom,” said McBride. “In the end, I’ll have something tangible to show for it that will pay business dividends.”
In 2017, Karlena Wilkinson decided to take a leap of faith without a business degree and opened her first early childhood education center. Today, she is owner of three such successful centers in Pennsylvania, including The Child Development Center of Easton. “I really don’t see any pros in going to business school,” said Wilkinson. “What is the point of sitting in a classroom all day to learn about business, profit and loss, etc.? It won’t help you own a business, and after graduation, you are left in the real world with nothing but questions on how to start a business and debt.”
Wilkinson recalled that when she opened her company, the only thing that she was asked by insurance companies to get liability insurance was how many years of work experience she had, not how many years of business school. “You can read a million books on it, get lectured a million times about it, but nothing beats hands-on experience,” said Wilkinson. “That is the true lesson and only schooling you will ever need. I would choose someone with years of experience running businesses over a new grad with an MBA any day.”
While working for an investment bank on Wall Street, Matthew Ross seriously considered going back for an MBA as a potential career-booster before launching his own company. Ultimately, though, he decided against it for financial reasons. “I thought it would be a waste of money,” admitted Ross. “I just didn’t want to fork over $100K for a degree that would likely lead me right back to a job in finance.” Ross, who today is co-owner and COO of The Slumber Yard, one of the leading sleep and mattress review websites and YouTube channels, noted that opportunity cost often gets lost in the business school conversation.
“People need to think about the time it takes to get the degree,” explained Ross. “For a lot of graduate degrees, it takes two to three years of full-time commitment. Let’s say the person was making $75,000 per year before going back to school for a cost of $100,000. In that case, the true cost for the degree would be $250,000 — $100K in tuition and $150K in missed paychecks.”
Lou Haverty, who works in corporate banking and created Financial Analyst Insider, strongly considered going to business school. He even went as far as taking the GMAT and completing a few applications. But the cost factor was what ultimately made him change his mind and instead earn a chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation.
“Within my industry, the CFA charter is often considered just as valuable as an MBA — but it costs only a few hundred dollars to sit for all three exam levels and maybe another few hundred dollars to purchase the study material,” explained Haverty. “I decided to pursue the CFA charter rather than spend over $100,000 for an MBA.” He added, though, that if he didn’t work in finance and was not able to pursue a professional designation that was as valuable as the CFA charter, he likely would have opted for an MBA.
A focus on entrepreneurship
While Gellerman is happy with her choice to have pursued an MBA for her particular goal of brand management, she caveats her recommendation of the degree depending on what your own career goal is — particularly if you want to start your own business.
“I don’t think an MBA is that practical if you want to pursue entrepreneurship,” said Gellerman. “If you want to grow a business or get funding, getting an MBA can help provide the support to do that. But if you want to start a business, you really can’t beat hands-on experience.”