UPenn’s Wharton School vs. Columbia Business School

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School - Ethan Baron photo

The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – Ethan Baron photo

If you get an invite to attend either of these two business schools, you are an exceptional person with huge upside potential. Otherwise, Wharton and Columbia would have dinged you. There are probably more similarities between these two schools than differences. “We are a fact-based and data-driven school,” says J.J. Cutler, deputy dean of Wharton’s MBA Admissions and Career Services.  “We do not have a charisma-style approach. We let the data drive us and help lead us to the solutions.” The same could just as easily be said of Columbia.

Yet, there are important differences. The first is obvious: Columbia is all about New York and the awesome resources it routinely leverages from the capital of the world. Unlike Wharton, it also enters two MBA classes a year, in January for students who don’t need or want a summer internship, and in September for a more conventional full-time MBA schedule. The diversity of exceptional students in both schools is mind-boggling: In Columbia’s Class of 2011, for example, are students who have interned at the White House, managed hedge funds, published books, produced TV shows and launched companies in the U.S. and abroad. The class includes an army ranger and recipient of the Bronze Star, the founder of the largest organic vegetable processing factory in northwestern China, a finalist on American Idol (we’re not kidding), and a three-time Grammy award-winning music producer.

Top Ten Reasons to Go to Wharton?

  1. You want to work for a financial services firm and want the single best degree to do so.
  2. You want lots of choices in courses, joint programs with other schools.
  3. You’re not yet sure what you want to concentrate in and want to insure you have a deep dive in virtually any subject.
  4. You’re up for an intense, competitive culture.
  5. You thrive in a larger environment and enjoy being a smaller fish in a bigger pond.
  6. You want to work, live and play in world-class business school facilities.
  7. You expect to be among the highest paid MBAs in the world.
  8. You prefer smaller, manageable cities to larger, more congested ones.
  9. You think Rocky is one of the best pictures ever made.

Top Ten Reasons to Go to Columbia?

  1. It’s one of the six best MBA programs in the world.
  2. It’s all about location, location, location. That is, New York location.
  3. You want a deep and thorough education, not merely in finance but a subset of it, such as investment management, private equity, value investing or something even more obscure.
  4. You expect to work in New York and want to be part of an extremely strong alumni base in the city where every major company is populated with at least some key players who got their MBA ticket punched where you did.
  5. You are highly competitive and want to go through a tough, competitive MBA program.
  6. You thrive in a larger environment and enjoy being a smaller fish in a bigger pond.
  7. You want to be part of an extremely diverse class, with lots of international exposure.
  8. You don’t mind traffic, people congestion, overpriced housing, and putting up with the hassles of big city life.
  9. You love big city life, or at least badly want to try it out, and you tend to dislike small towns in isolated places.
  10. You root for the New York Yankees, love museums and Carnegie Hall.

The more detailed differences between Columbia and Wharton?

Columbia University

Geography: Columbia Business School is the quintessential big city university. Its location in New York, the business, financial and media center of the world, brings the school massive benefits: a living laboratory of markets and businesses, an endless supply of well-qualified adjunct teachers, and more visiting executives who gravitate to its classrooms to speak and lecture. The school estimates that it gets more than 500 guest speakers a year on campus. That is a networking opportunity that is unique. “We have a big advantage being in New York City because there are so many opportunities for students to visit local alumni in their work offices and for alums to come back and coach students on campus,” says Ethan Hanabury, a senior associate dean at Columbia. He estimates that as many as 3,000 alums come back to the school each year for conferences, classes, recruiting sessions, and mentoring programs. There are few cities in the world that are as alive, exciting and dynamic than New York. The drawback to Columbia’s location is also obvious: As one student put it, “It’s easier to get a little lost in New York, to feel a little less rooted if you’re from outside the area, and to be a little more anonymous.” The social dynamic is completely different as well. Because Columbia MBAs rarely live together but are spread throughout the city, they’re far more likely to be more competitive with each other. It’s easier to stab someone in the back when you rarely see them outside of class. Wharton’s location in the heart of Philadelphia makes it a train ride away from either New York or Washington. Despite some concerns over the neighborhood surrounding the school, Wharton is in an extremely safe and comfortable place. With the fifth largest population in the U.S., Philadelphia is a great, compact city, with world-class restaurants and cultural attractions. Most students who attend Wharton have never been to Philadelphia and are usually pleasantly surprised by the city’s livability. Says Wharton’s Cutler: It’s fair to say that you can’t compare Philly to New York. They are different places. It’s not better or worse, they are different.”

Size: Both Wharton and Columbia boast two of the largest full-time MBA programs in the world. Total full-time MBA enrollment at Wharton is 1,674, versus Columbia’s 1,293. In the September-entry class alone, Columbia brings in about 554 full-time MBAs as well as another 121 Executive MBAs. Wharton enrolls just over 860 full-time MBAs each  fall semester. They’re divided into four groups of about 210 students that are known as clusters. Then, each cluster is chopped into three cohorts of about 70 students. Every cohort moves through the core curriulum as a unit, sharing the first year of their academic experience. You can waive out of the core courses if you have prior experience in the subject and move onto more advanced coursework. Only three courses can’t be waived at Wharton: business ethics, leadership, and communications. It’s a similar story at Columbia which divides up its new students into clusters of 60 to 65 people who take most of the first-year core classes together.

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  • JY

    I don’t mind going to either one, assuming they accept me…

  • Dekker Fraser

    Kellogg teaches it

  • Tuk Tran

    can anyone explain why the health care management program of Wharton is run by a dictator/gatekeeper? I wont mention any names but they speak of her like the North Korean leader in Pyongyang…i find this sad…if you dont believe me, just go around and ask..this is VERY UNHEALTHY

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  • rubicx

    If I were lying, I would be a Wharton alum, therefore I’m telling the truth. I’m pretty sure that I know my own truthful experiences better than you do. Maybe you should post something useful and insightful instead.

  • rKx

    Do you always respond with useless stuff “I met ….. and they all were” …. Stop lying.

  • Booth17

    NYC>>>>>>>>>Philly, apart from that I see no major differences in recruiting, networking, career opportunities. Columbia is just more expensive but offers other opportunities too. I highly doubt any top speakers stop by Philly every week.

  • JohnAByrne


    I’m assuming you are thinking of getting an undergraduate degree in business and that means that Harvard and Columbia are out. They don’t offer business undergrads. Given your keen interest in fashion, I would take a look at New York University’s undergraduate business program. I also would certainly apply to Wharton which has an excellent marketing program. You can’t go wrong with either program, though they are both highly selective and not easy to get into. NYU would be slightly easier than Wharton, but I also think that NYU could be ideal for you given the fashion interest you have. Good luck!

  • Amy

    Hi Mr. Byrne! Interesting article! I’m a high school senior considering a major in Business and focus in Managament/Marketing. Later on I’d take this education into the fashion industry so would you suggest Wharton or Columbia’s Business School? What about Harvard’s Business School?

  • Tuk Tran

    can anyone explain why the health care management program of Wharton is run by a dictator/gatekeeper? I wont mention any names but they speak of her like the North Korean leader in Pyongyang…i find this sad…if you dont believe me, just go around and ask..this is VERY UNHEALTHY

  • KB

    Hi John, Thanks for this informative article. Could you share your thoughts on Executive MBA ,for Columbia vs Wharton. Or for that matter if you have any other view for other school as I am looking forward to a EMBA and thinking about specializing in Strategy. Could you also add your thoughts for this. Looking forward to your reply. Thanks

  • A M

    It is very refreshing to read such a good quality article which is unbiased and comprehensive. Better than any of the articles I have read on the subject

  • valueinvestorguy

    You could look at Richard Ivey in Canada.

  • rubicx

    Wharton has deeper bonding? How does that happen at a factory with almost 2000 students? Every Wharton alum I ever met left with at most one “friend,” but most left with none and they all seem to really dislike each other and their experience there, but they feel good about paying for the credential.

  • rubicx

    LBS may teach it, but it’s not intensive, just light, like everything else taught at LBS.

  • Rajesh Marwah

    London Business School has an intensive elective on Value investing

  • Rajesh Marwah

    London Business School has an intensive elective on Value investing.

  • Rick

    Columbia is better with better job prospects. Also Columbia has huge brand new facilities under construction that will be finished in a couple of years that will throw it over the top.

  • Wharton’s reputation tarnished in India, because of lack of leadership, on their Indian forum, would be a huge blow to the brand.

  • Chewbacca

    Did anyone else notice that there are only 9 reasons given under the “Top Ten Reasons to Go to Wharton?” section?

  • Luxury retail is probably better at CBS than any other school. By the time you finish your degree you could have had a summer internship plus several mid-semester internships (on Fridays) with firms in the sector.

  • Why exactly do you think Wharton has “deeper bonding” and “more collaborative and cooperative” culture than CBS? I’m a current CBS student and would confidently compete on culture with any business school. As one example, come to Tuck Winter Carnival–we bring 35 students versus 10-15 from any other school. CBS may have been a competitive place 20 years ago but that is simply no longer the case, particularly since grade nondisclosure was implemented here.

  • Columbia isn’t nearly as dependent on finance as the media makes it out to be. CBS actually sends more students to consulting than to finance. Recruiting is actually quite strong for all of the top MBA professions and CBS even has amazing programs in social enterprise and entrepreneurship.

  • No other school teaches value investing.

  • There isn’t anyone at CBS who would hide a book from another student. That’s absurd.

  • Andrew

    Columbia J-term and a Wharton MBA are completely different programs. Doing a J-term at Columbia means you don’t work a summer internship, but finish quicker. At Wharton, you get a much more intense campus experience and the benefit of a summer internship. If you want to continue with investment management, I’m surprised at your thoughts regarding opening doors as Columbia is second to none.

  • Andrew

    A huge component of getting a post-graduate job in this field is getting a good internship. Being in NY is a huge leg up so I would definitely favor NYU and Columbia over Wharton.

  • Rick

    **whether it does so remains to be seen.

  • Rick

    Columbia has taken a statistically significant hit in number of applications; it was down by 19.5% this year. Finance in New York is down by all estimates and most of the data and research points to the fact that big finance (hedge funds, PE, etc) are not going to come back to those pre 2008 levels anytime soon. In fact, many suggest that those halcyon days of massive bonuses for newly minted finance MBAs are a thing of the past. Of course, there will always be hugely successful MBAs who will make tons of money in wall street. But we are speaking in general terms — we have to look at averages and the big picture. I would argue the exact opposite — Columbia has been going in the other direction. A big problem has been Dean Hubbard’s lack of administration and leadership. The faculty and students are high quality, but the administration has badly let them down. Columbia is still a great school — but I think they have missed out on a opportunity to cement a permanent place in the top 5 along with HBS, GSB, Wharton and Booth. In early 2000s I would have said exactly what you said — Columbia is a lock for a top 5 in the coming decade and maybe even top 3. But guess what — a financial recession, poor administration, and the rise of the schools has now left Columbia in a fight with schools such as MIT, Tuck, Kellogg, Hass and Fuqua for a place in the top 8 or 10. All the trends in the latest rankings suggest this. But that said, Columbia has the advantage of both its location and reputation to make a comeback into the top 5; weather it does so remains to be seen.

  • J Bell

    Good comments and obviously these are both excellent programs. I think one
    factor (perhaps the most important one) consistently gets overlooked.. Program Momentum.

    For many years, Columbia Business School was the sleeping giant of MBA programs, but over the last 10 – 15 years the program has grown by leaps and bounds. The reality is quite simple. In the long-run, NYC is an insurmountable advantage and in 10 years, no one will be debating this topic.

  • JohnAByrne

    I think that’s pretty much a toss up. NYU, by the way, also should be in the mix because they have a concentration in luxury retailing. One thing I would do is to check out the elective course offerings at Columbia and Wharton and see what’s on the marketing menu in this area. That could help seal the deal. 

  • JohnAByrne

    Those are all fantastic universities and you couldn’t go wrong with any of those choices.

  • johns hopkins sais student

    Hi John, Thanks for your insights. These articles have been very helpful. In your future posts, I would be curious to see a comparison of INSEAD with either Wharton or Dartmouth. I am a current MA student at a top international relations graduate program and I would like to pursue a joint degree option at one of these schools (which each have agreements with my current program). Thanks in advance if you are able to get to this sooner than later. 

  • Ben

    Dear Mr. John, 

    Regarding very good undergraduate business schools, what’s your opinion on UVA, Wharton, Yale college in Economics, and Harvard in Economics.

  • ra23

     I would totally agree. I moved to Columbia and NYC having lived in the Midwest for 10 years and was somewhat apprehensive as I had heard similar rumors about Columbia being overly competitive and not collaborative. My first year at Columbia was amazing and I found that there is a great community culture and students are very helpful and collaborative. Yes, some people tend to not integrate as much and choose to live the same lives they were before school but they are definitely a small minority.

  • Dan

    Ironically, beginning a post with “you’re an idiot” does little to assuage the perception Columbia is filled with asses. You are an ass. 

  • I very much disagree with the assessment above.  As you can see from the employment figures above, Columbia has an edge with most of the highly prestigious finance and consulting firms over Wharton (multiply CBS figures by 1.29 since Wharton is that much bigger in terms of enrollment).  I highly doubt MCK, Bain, Citi, JP Morgan, Goldman, Merrill, etc. would hire more CBS grads merely because of location either.  Also, students at Wharton are KNOWN for their competitiveness (your own article John, ehem:  
    http://poetsandquants.com/2012/03/01/b-schools-with-the-most-competitive-students/2/) whereas CBS isn’t even on that list!!  The whole bit about NY making students more competitive is completely objective and does not reflect what actually happens at the program.  Being a current CBS student, I can attest that while there are a few bad apples (as there are in any MBA program), for the most part everyone is very helpful and we bond very well.

    I do agree that CBS’s building is decrepit, but for those entering in 2014, this will be highly improved as the world class Manhattanville campus will be finished by then.

  • Karthik nellian

    Hey John. I have been following your website, Poets and Quants for a long time now. I would like to thank you very much for the effective detail embedded into every B-school smackdown. It’s really helpful and thank you very much for the same. I was just wondering if you could do a smackdown of Insead Vs London and ISB Vs HKUST, since there are a lot of prospective students just like me, waiting for your analysis and advice before making a clear cut decision. Thanks for the same John.

    Best Regards,


  • HSCWaspirant,

    Yep. All horribly overdue. I have a real backlog of reported stories I’m trying to churn out, plus new features I need to put in place. But the smackdowns you mention are high priority because I know they are of big interest to our audience. So maybe in a couple of weeks or so.

  • HSCWaspirant

    Hi John
    I was wondering when you would be able to post a comparison of Booth with Wharton and Booth with Columbia as you had mentioned in some of your comments. Eagerly waiting to hear your take on these comparisons.

  • Youssef,

    I’m assuming you first want to get an undergraduate business degree. My advice would be to get that degree from the very best school you can possibly get into and to gain immediate business experience. Perhaps you have a low-cost idea for a startup company that you can run? Perhaps you can work for someone who would agree to be your mentor? It’s especially important to get into a very good school so I would concentrate hard on earning a good score on the college entrance exams and doing from there. Good luck to youl

  • Youssef Walid

    Dear Mr John,
    I am a 17 year old IB student in Egypt and i want to enter a very powerful business school that enables me to do great things in the future. I would be honored if you gave me your experienced advice.

  • MBAHopeful

    Hey John – What are your thoughts on Wharton v. Columbia for someone who wants to work in (luxury) retail e-commerce?

  • Gargamol

    Thank you very much John. At least an unbiased opinion, and trust me, it is difficult to get. I’m also leaning toward Wharton actually, notably because of the tremendous flexibilty of the curiculum : i would not like to go to Harvard and have to go through all the basics that a already know! At Wharton i could choose classes, and that is a terrific asset. But i still have a question : in your view, does Wharton also have an edge over Columbia in prestige and brand, notably abroad? I ask because i would like to use my MBA as a “passeport” in other countries, notably Asia, so i wouldlike to have as strong a name as possible. Some people seem to think that Columbia is not boxing exactly in the same category that Wharton, even if it is a great school. Do you have a view on it? Thank you so much

    BTW : congrats for your site, it is great

  • Gargamol,

    First off, I have to tell you that you can’t go wrong with either choice. These are two world-class MBA programs, among the very best on the face of the earth. Given their proximity to Wall Street and the very early focus both schools put on finance, they are really solid bet for someone in investment management.

    That said, I would go to Wharton. Why? A lot of reasons, really. 1) Leadership at the top of the school is, in my view, superior and that travels through the key administrative jobs. 2) The faculty across all the disciplines is stronger than it is at Columbia. Yes, you’ll get some great adjuncts in finance at Columbia given its New York locate, but person for person, I would put Wharton’s faculty up against Columbia’s any day. 3) The students are more collaborative and cooperative than than are at Columbia. There are a lot of reasons for this, including Wharton’s current dean of students who by all accounts is an exceptional culture builder. But mainly it’s because in New York the MBA students tend to disperse into the corners of the city after class so you just don’t get the bonding you would at Wharton. 4) Infrastructure. Wharton has one of the best campuses in the world with the most up-to-date classrooms. Columbia pretty much has the worst facility of any major business school. I know this doesn’t seem like a big point but it is when you’re waiting for an elevator for more than five minutes in Uris Hall. As for job opportunities, I would say they are roughly equal but that the alumni network at Wharton is stronger than Columbia due to the deeper bonding that occurs while on campus.

    Good luck with your decision.

  • Gargamol

    I’m really hesitating between the J-Term at Columbia and the MBA at Wharton. Knowing that I would start at 32, do you think my age in itself is a compulsory reason to choose Columbia? I’m concerned that Wharton seems to be highly regarded than Columbia so i should choose it, but is my percetion real and has it real implications (i mean: does Wharton open more doors than Columbia does?)? I work in investment management. Thanxx!

  • columbia_alum

    John Byrne, you’re an idiot. This article about Wharton vs. Columbia is silly. Are there fools at any schools who may do things such as hide books from other students? Yes, at every school. This article is very bias towards Wharton which may be a fine school…….but Columbia was awesome!

  • james

    great article…lots of information ….thanks

  • You will, very shortly, too!

  • Matthew

    This analysis is great! I would love to see a matchup of Chicago Booth versus either of these two school.

  • Adrian, thanks much for your very thoughtful and insightful comments.

  • Consultant quant

    To JTBB:

    The comments on competitiveness and alumni spirit are generally accurate.

    Competitiveness: The concerns of pre-MBAs here are really overrated. Nobody hides textbooks at either school, despite the rumors. Students at neither school suffer fools well though.

    I actually disagree with the comments on Wharton’s undergrad program. I think it’s a huge advantage for Wharton. It essentially doubles the size of the school, thereby doubling the number of research initiatives, programs, classes, etc., that can be taught. Many niche classes are too small for either an undergrad session or an MBA session, but can get critical mass when offered together. I really missed this at Columbia. Columbia, however, being in NYC, can easily get amazing adjuncts to take the subway up and teach a seminar once a week. I just read an article on Liz Claiborne in the WSJ today and realized I met all three of the key executives mentioned in the article at Columbia.

    Alumni: the comments here are accurate. Wharton builds an esprit from constantly reminding you that you’re at the world’s best business school (ratings be damned), and as an alumnus you’re expected to “take the call.” Unfortunately Wharton doesn’t fully leverage its big undergrad alumni network, which isn’t good for the MBAs. (I’m starting to rant on a tangent here, feel free to skip.) Most critically, undergrad alumni can’t participate on Wharton job boards; instead we’re pawned off onto Penn’s abysmal career center and minimalist job boards. Thus I generally focus my efforts as a supportive alumnus (i.e. mentoring, recruiting) on Columbia. When I was running Columbia recruiting for one of those big-name consulting firms (a huge investment of my personal time on behalf of Columbia students), our hiring at Columbia doubled in three years and Wharton numbers fell. Again, we undergrad alumni could contribute a lot to Wharton and benefit their MBAs, but not if we’re treated as second-class alumni.

    Columbia is doing a lot better in the more recent classes at building community and alumni support. Glenn Hubbard may be an introverted economist, but he gets it. Students get it too. Recent alumni from Columbia are a lot more aware of the importance of supporting the school than some of the older alumni. There’s a bit of an Avis mentality at Columbia (“we try harder”) among the recent alumni.

  • K L

    Besides Columbia, are there any other top b-schools that have an edge in “value investing”?

  • Jtbb

    Consulting quant, are the comments on competitiveness/class spirit and alumni support accurate as well?

  • Consulting quant

    I have business degrees from both these schools. Your commentary is generally accurate. So why not do 4 years of Wharton undergrad and 2 years of Columbia MBA?

    But you also illustrate the folly of many pre-MBAs who study squishy statistics too closely. For example, you write: “Starting pay for Wharton grads was just a little bit more than at Columbia by about $600 a year” but “surprisingly, over an entire career, they trailed Wharton MBAs” in compensation. You actually believe this to be useful worth mentioning? And the tiny differences are “surprising”?

    Give me a break. Any quant worth his HP-12C knows that self-reported data with incomplete response rates measuring tricky numbers like comp packages has at least a 5-10% plus/minus on it, and small differences are not meaningful, much less “surprising”.

    By the way, in your data, you report 20 Columbia hires and 18 Wharton hires at a certain consulting firm. The actual number is 12 at Columbia. I ran Columbia recruiting for the Class of 2009 at that particular firm. A great example of false precision in employment numbers.