The MBA Alumni Network: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

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by Dan Bauer on

Getting a top-tier business school education offers a long list of benefits and attractions to those with the vision and passion to achieve it. Students gain essential skills and learn cutting-edge theories that enable them to progress rapidly in their chosen field. By participating actively in offerings outside the classroom – conferences, internships, field studies, and student clubs – budding MBAs also learn to see the big picture beyond their chosen functional specialty. And spending two years surrounded by several hundred high-energy, overachieving peers from around the world — emphasis on collaborating and socializing is exhilarating.

But the most enduring benefit is one that begins just as the two-year student adventure ends: membership in the alumni network. The engagement, opportunity and loyalty found in an MBA alumni network typically exceed those found in even the most active undergraduate alumni groups. College alumni affiliations tend to be more about seeing a the same set of close friend every few months or convening at a local pub to watch the “big game” on TV.  Unless someone lived in the same fraternity house or took the same classes as you, there’s really not that much in common beyond having a similar sweatshirt at the back of your closet.  However, with business school alumni, the substance and significance of involvement can actually increase over time.

Why is this true? Well, for starters, everyone studied essentially the same topics in the same format.  For example, when Harvard Business School alums gather, regardless of their respective graduation years, the case-study method – even the names of some classic cases – form a common bond. And guru faculty tend to remain at the same school for decades, thus giving graduates an even stronger sense of connection.

From my experience, the most engaged, and loyal alumni networks include those of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Kellogg and Tuck among the top-ranked schools. In the next tier, Cornell and Indiana are quite special.  Relatively speaking, the sense of commitment and shared identity among alumni tends to diminish after the top 20.

The motivation to communicate, cooperate and collaborate is exceptionally strong among MBA grads.  After all, this is business school.  Whether an alum is an entrepreneur striving to grow his or her company, a young professional seeking to accelerate his or her career path, or a venerable old grad mentoring others in appreciation for past guidance received, the alumni network is a vibrant and efficient platform for such “value exchange.”

Participating in the MBA alumni network allows grads to give and/or get the following:

  • Subjective-matter expertise on every industry, function or market imaginable.
  • Human and financial capital for business growth.
  • Access to decision makers and potential customers who are friends or associates of a fellow MBA grad.
  • Career help — informational interviews, internships and even full-time jobs – for sons and daughters.
  • The chance to recapture and relive the joys of b-school at social events and membership meetings.

So, how can MBA alumni get the maximum benefit from their b-school network? Well, the process should start before you’re even accepted and enrolled:

  1. Meet alums before you apply. Contacting officers of the nearest alumni chapter offers you the chance to see and  hear the impact of a given school’s MBA program on their careers.  If you find a role model among these accomplished individuals, that’s often a good sign that this is the school for you.
  2. Build career ties while enrolled.  As you’re exploring various employment options, the alumni directory offers a wealth of contacts who will gladly respond to questions from current students. Such dialogue also gives them a chance to discover more about you, and might even lead to job offer upon graduation.
  3. Join up and get started as soon as you accept a job. Local alumni chapters are always eager to welcome newly minted grads.  In fact, many have formed a “club within a club” for those who have graduated within the past decade.  There are always committee assignments available to those with the interest and energy to contribute – the perfect way to get to know even the most senior members of the group.
  4. Stay involved as your career evolves.  As an MBA graduate reaches mid-career, the demands of work and family are at a peak. While it may be tempting to put alumni network involvement on hold, that’s a big mistake.  Especially during volatile economic times, employment can be unpredictable.  Should you find yourself unexpectedly losing your job, or if  you want to remain visible for new opportunities, remaining active in the MBA alumni network is an ideal resource.
  5. Run for chapter office, become a leader. Remember how much your participation in campus clubs added to the classroom experience in business school?  The same is true for alumni.  Being an “active member” is valuable, but seizing the opportunity to demonstrate and develop leadership is ever more beneficial.  In addition to bolstering your resume, serving as a chapter officer provides a positive outlet for you to exercise strategic thinking and people skills without the constraints you face in your “day job.”  The chance to serve as a CEO or COO may be decades away at your company, but simply awaiting your decision to step up in the MBA alumni organization.
  6. Enrichment after retirement. As executives approach the last few years on the job, they may find that the intellectual stimulation and daily socialization that they’ve enjoyed for so long start to diminish. Whatever one chooses to do after retiring, the opportunity for interaction with fellow grads of all ages is a blessing.  Your wisdom is valued and trusted by those who attended the same alma mater.

So, if you’re wrestling with whether to attend business school, or simply trying to choose the best program for yourself, be sure to keep in mind the life-long benefits of active involvement in the MBA alumni network.  The more selective and prestigious the school, the stronger the ties and the more valuable the affiliation.  And remember: an MBA education need not – and should not – end at graduation.  The next 40+ years offer dividends that will enhance your life, professionally and personally, far beyond your expectations.

Dan Bauer is the managing director and founder of The MBA Exchange, which offers consulting services to business school applicants. An MBA graduate of Harvard Business School, Bauer’s career includes management positions with Citicorp, MasterCard International, and DDB Needham Worldwide. Before founding The MBA Exchange in 1996, his experience included interviewing and assessing MBA applicants on behalf of the Harvard Business School. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude from Ohio University. Mr. Bauer has served on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Business School Club of Chicago, and provided leadership for organizations including the American Marketing Association and Sales & Marketing Executives International.

Air Time - Comments
  • Arthur, that’s a good question. The ideal measurement–how much help the network provides alums over the course of their careers–is elusive. So you can ask that question of a sample of alums at each school and get their impressions. The BusinessWeek data, which asks recent graduates the question, doesn’t quite reach deeply enough into the alumni base over the years to get a good fix on it. Still, it’s a glimpse at the value of the network as perceived by the most recent graduating class. Some think the best measurement is alumni support of the school. That is judged by the percentage of living alums who annually contribute money to the school. By this measure, Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business is off the charts. Tuck leads all business schools by a huge margin, with an alumni participation rate of 66.7% in its most recent fund-raising campaign. Even more impressive, Tuck has had 60%-plus percent participation for the past 25 years. No other top business school comes close to 50%, while the average of Tuck’s peer schools come in at less than 25%. Put another way, the Tuck participation rate is three times the average of the top 20 business schools. It demonstrates the alumni’s remarkable loyalty to and relationship with the school and its students. I would like a combination of these measurements. It’s also helpful to note that alums not only need to be supportive of a school, its graduates and each other. They also need to be in positions of power and influence to offer the kind of help that makes a difference.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    How do you measure the strength of an alumni network?

  • Interesting results. I was surprised at USC. My data is just anecdotal. Two of the USC grads I know always complained about the lack of alums for networking on the East coast. But maybe it is just the person… and not the actual network. 🙂

  • In this essay, Dan offers his perspective that the schools with the best alumni networks are Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Kellogg, and Tuck in the top tier as well as Indiana and Cornell in the next tier. Back in 1988, when I created the first BusinessWeek ranking of MBA programs, a key question on our survey to recent graduates attempted to assess the value of an alumni network. What’s interesting about the result is how little change has occurred over the years. We asked MBA grads: “Do you feel that the business school has the connections that can help you throughout your career?” The schools that came out on top? Harvard, Tuck, Stanford, USC, Wharton, Cornell, Kellogg, Columbia, and Michigan, in that order. The weakest? Rochester, Purdue, Texas at Austin, and Carnegie-Melon. In subsequent years, I rephrased the question to get more directly at the quality of the network: “How would you judge the school’s network and connections that can help you throughout your career?” The answers: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Tuck, USC, UCLA, Thunderbird, Notre Dame, Kellogg, and Michigan, in that order. At the time, the late ’90s, the weaker alumni networks were: the University of Washington, Iowa, Illinois, and Georgetown. Of course, this is all relative. The schools that failed to perform as well on this measure were among those considered the best business schools in the world. So their relative weakness has to be judged against the very best. Still, I think the biggest surprise in this data is the strong showings by USC and Michigan.

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