Why Josh Kaufman Thinks Business School Is A Waste

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

Josh Kaufman, founder of PersonalMBA.com

Josh Kaufman, founder of PersonalMBA.com

If Josh Kaufman had gone to business school, he probably would have graduated this year with an MBA from Harvard or Stanford. But Kaufman, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who had worked as an assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble, thinks business school is pretty much a waste of time and money.

MBA programs, he says firmly, have become so expensive that students “must effectively mortgage their lives” and take on “a crippling burden of debt” to get what is “mostly a worthless piece of paper.” Kaufman believes that MBA programs “teach many worthless, outdated, even outright damaging concepts and practices.” And if that’s not bad enough, he insists that an MBA won’t guarantee anyone a high-paying job, let alone turn a person into a skilled manager or leader.

“Business schools don’t create successful people,” insists Kaufman. “They simply accept them, then take credit for their success. With heavy debt loads and questionable returns, MBA programs simply aren’t a good investment—they’re a trap for the unwary.”

In an era when MBA bashing has become almost fashionable, Kaufman is emerging as business schools’ most unforgiving critic. With his shaved, completely bald head, neatly-trimmed facial hair and rimless spectacles, he looks the part of a young prophet you might find on a city street corner. Founder of PersonalMBA.com and the author of the forthcoming “The Personal MBA,” he’s a passionate advocate for what he calls self-education. Instead of paying up to $350,000 in tuition and forgone earnings to go to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton, Kaufman says a better way to learn business is to open the pages of classic business texts and learn on your own.

Through the economic meltdown, of course, MBA bashing reached new heights. Eager to find a scapegoat, critics happily assigned blame to business schools for teaching MBAs the merits of financial manipulation that led to a global financial crisis. A Dilbert cartoon strip last year had Alice telling a co-worker, “I hear you have an MBA. Just like the jerks who ruined the economy.” Even a recent Federal Express commercial pokes fun at a stereotypical MBA’s super ego and arrogance. But Kaufman, who renounces the notion that he is an MBA basher, goes far beyond mere name calling. He strikes at the central issues of the degree: Is the education worth the price? Is what you’re taught valuable for a successful career in business? His answer: An emphatic no.

Much of Kaufman’s argument rests on a study published eight years ago by Stanford Business School professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University and Christina T. Fong of the University of Washington. The pair analyzed 40 years of data and studies and came up with a provocative and startling conclusion: “There is scant evidence that the MBA credential, particularly from non-elite schools, or the grades earned in business courses are related to either salary or the attainment of higher level positions in organizations.”


As Kaufman quotes from the document, he is almost giddy. “It’s the first and only systematic study I’ve seen,” he says. “They crunched 40 years of data on job rates, positions, and salaries. They asked whether getting an MBA provides benefits or not. Their answer was no. It does effectively nothing. It had no impact.”

His epiphany occurred five years ago, when he was working at P&G headquarters in Cincinnati as an assistant brand manager for the company’s Home Care division. He had joined P&G straight from the University of Cincinnati by virtue of the school’s cooperative education program. Almost all his peers and managers boasted elite MBA degrees. To overcome his feelings of intimidation and to prepare for the job, he began reading, and reading, and reading, from textbooks, such as the “Essentials of Accounting,” to “Competitive Strategy” by Harvard professor Michael Porter and “The Effective Executive” by the late management guru Peter Drucker. Every day, he would spend hour after hour reading in a quest to deepen his understanding of how the business world worked.

“After I went through the self-education process I felt like a peer,” says Kaufman. “There’s the general impression that getting an MBA puts you on a pedestal in terms of your knowledge and experience and what you’re able to contribute to a business. But I was able to walk into a boardroom and hold my own with people who had graduated from Stanford and Wharton. It was very exciting.”

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  • SJ

    A philosophical debate, however we live in real world don’t we?

    Since when has it stopped to matter where we live, which car we drive and what we do during our free time? There were always spiritual saints, mind over matter genuises but that has always been true for about 1% of the population. This population is independent of the normal and would do well with or without the stereotypes.

    For the other mere mortals a CV is in fact a marketing tool where a few labels do well. It also demonstrates that the individual is motivated, wants to take the risk on himself and has survived under pressure (assuming after graduation).

    I have been through a lot of high profile education committees and sometimes you connect with the employer only because you came from the same school etc.

    Then birds of the same feather flock together… YOu get the right of admission in to that world. A top tier MBA has a tough entry point, Nobel laureate faculty, rigorous schedule that tests you on multiple fronts at the same time, how could it not improve the individual.

    Finally it is worth it? Even a mortgage can lead you to a foreclosure, then why not invest in yourself. Afterall in this case one invests in oneself. I am sure with a HBS the consultant lady would end up doing great for herself with a lettle perseverance.

    I believe MBA (or any education) is a tool. The quality of the tool is in the hand of the craftsmen, MBA is not an end in itself but it enhances individual’s ability to make the best out of the given opportunities.

  • James

    I would agree there is nothing one can’t learn on one’s own by reading books. However, the overwhelming majority of folk will not have the self discipline required to pour over volumes of books unless they are forced to via adherence to a course syllabus, deadlines, exams, papers, etc..

    I personally advocate for state subsidized programs. I achieved a 4.0 finance MBA from a state University to the total tune of $12,500. That’s it. Many of my professors are top-notch in their fields. My mentor in the finance department has an undergrad & Masters from MIT, as well as a PhD from Berkeley. Sure, the bar is not held quite as high at this school, but it’s no joke, either. It’s what you make of it. I feel I learned a ton.

    I also got an immediate raise in my position which paid off the total cost of the MBA in less than 1 year.

    For me personally, it was totally worth it.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/redpoet/ Red Poet

    Some quick hits:

    Out of all of these takes, I can relate to Rishona’s the most. Everyone’s situation is different, and what makes sense for you might not make sense for someone else, at a given place in their professional development. So be an adult, do you homework, and don’t let anyone talk you out of a course of action if it makes the most sense for you.

    Re MH: That there is some tough love. Raw. I’d buy that guy a beer.

  • MBAstudent

    Totally agree with this. I’m an MBA student right now at Sloan, but I did it for very selfish reasons.

    – Wanted to have fun for two more years aka college
    – Got 75% paid for and getting a engineering degree as well
    – Want to spend all my free time skipping class and not doing homework to read books, questions myself, see speakers talk and really LEARN.

    Most of my classmates would be successful with or without the MBA. I think the real challenge is removing their insecurity and confirmation bias going forward.

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