UPenn’s Wharton School vs. Columbia Business School

Culture: Wharton and Columbia are big-city schools with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that. Typically, schools in large urban settings tend to have more intense and competitive cultures. It’s easier to escape school in a big city than it is in a college town or rural setting. While cut-throat competition may be exaggerated at Columbia (it has been said that MBA students once hid books from classmates), it’s true that the Columbia environment is more competitive given its location in hyper-competitive New York. A year ago, a graduating Columbia student penned an essay for the campus newspaper in which he  he bemoaned the lack of a supportive and encouraging culture. “There is no community at Columbia,” he wrote. “There is no sense of solidarity. There is no creative energy. Too many people out for themselves.” There’s more than some hyperbole in those comments, but they are directionally correct. A greater sense of community exists at Wharton if only because the campus is compact and contained, and you’re more likely to know a larger number of your classmates. Wharton has one significant disadvantage for MBA students: it has one of the largest undergraduate business and executive educations programs in the world, with 2,621 undergrads and 9,000 executives attending seminars and longer programs. Columbia has no undergraduate business population and few executive education courses to spread its faculty over.

Facilities: Unfortunately, Columbia Business School has the absolute worst facility of any prestige b-school. That’s no fault of the school’s leadership. For years, several deans have been trying to get a new world-class building to replace the 1960s-built Uris Hall, but politics and highly limited space on campus have made this a long, and difficult quest. Meantime, all of Columbia’s peers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into new world-class complexes so the contrast between what Columbia has and everyone else is vast. Uris is an unattractive concrete slab of a building, over-crowded and sub-standard in every way. No wonder the school’s elaborate website contains only a single photograph of the outside of Uris among numerous slideshows of the overall university campus and New York. It has been renovated, but has limited places to study and few classrooms. There is no business school residence hall. Instead, some b-school grads get to fight it out for the limited graduate housing with Columbia’s other schools. Half of the MBA classes, including the core, gets taught two blocks away from Uris at Warren Hall, a building on 115th St. shared with the university’s law school. Though the school has two other buildings, they are used for the Executive MBA and executive education programs. So all the action in the MBA program occurs in Uris and Warren on Columbia’s Morningside campus which runs from West 114th St. to West 120th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave. This will change, perhaps by 2012, when the b-school is supposed to move to the university’s expanded campus, a 17-acre tract of land in West Harlem from Broadway to 12th St. between 125th and 133rd St. This new university campus won’t be fully built until 2030.

Wharton, on the other hand, has some of the best business school facilities in the world. The B-school campus is composed of seven buildings on and off Locust Walk, the brick-lined pedestrian thoroughfare at the heart of Penn. The buildings are closely clustered around the area of campus known as the “Wharton Quad,” a great meeting place and hub for students. The newest building, Jon M. Huntsman Hall, is home to both the undergraduate and graduate divisions of Wharton. It represents the single largest addition of academic space on the Penn campus in more than half a century. It’s a gorgeous world-class building of 320,000 square feet, designed around Wharton’s cohort learning model. This building alone boasts 48 clasrooms, four computer labs, 57 group study rooms, four floors of faculty offices, a 300-seat auditorium, student cafes and study lounges. If you’re keeping count, it’s essentially one building at Columbia versus seven at Wharton.

Teaching Methods: Both schools offer up a variety of teaching methods, from case study to lectures and team projects. There’s really no major difference in the classroom approaches at Wharton and Columbia, though the more flexible classroom space at Wharton offers the opportunity for more experiential opportunities. Wharton says that case studies make up about 35% of the work, team projects account for 25%, and lectures take up 20%. Columbia says that case studies and lectures each account for 40% of the classwork, while team projects make up 15%.

Program Focus: The most common misperception about Wharton and Columbia is that they are finance schools. While it’s true that Wharton and Columbia boast superb finance faculties and course options, these schools are more like department stores with widely diverse offerings than they are finance boutiques. Wharton, for example, claims to have more elective courses than any other business school in the world, nearly 200 across 11 academic departments (not including courses you can take elsewhere at the University of Pennsylvania). Columbia Business School, meantime, offers more than 130 electives, an amazing array of choices yet still about a third less than Wharton. Interestingly, Wharton opens a door to allow its students to work with faculty and administration to develop new courses, and they often partner with faculty and businesses on individual advanced study projects. Taking five courses in a field qualifies you for one of 18 listed majors at Wharton, including such narrow fields as health care management and environmental and risk management.

Columbia is no slouch in offering up specialty areas of study. There’s also a private equity focus and a “value investing” focus, the latter with a curriculum of eight courses alone, from “Legends in Value Investing” to “Distressed Value Investing.” A “media” focus boasts 26 courses at Columbia’s schools of business, film, law, journalism, international and public affairs, and arts and sciences. You can even do deep dives on such specialized areas as “social enterprise” or “healthare and pharmaceutical management.” With a full-time faculty of 150 plus 50 more adjunct professors, Colubmia offers extraordinary flexibility. So does Wharton with its staff of more than 250 faculty members.

In most specific areas of study, such as international business, finance, marketing, management, and entrepreneurship, Wharton is more highly regarded than Columbia, according to U.S. News & World Report’s latest survey of B-school deans and MBA directors. No school tops Wharton in finance (Columbia is fourth behind Wharton, Chicago, and NYU). Yet, Columbia’s finance and economics division is the school’s largest, accounting for nearly half of the courses taught at the B-school.

In marketing, Wharton is second, behind only Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management (Columbia is tied for sixth with Chicago). In management, Wharton is ranked fourth, just beneath Harvard, Stanford and Northwestern (Columbia is tenth). In entrepreneurship, the gap is even wider, with Wharton ranked fifth and Columbia tied for 14th with Chicago. In international business, Wharton is second, while Columbia is tied for sixth with Duke and NYU. The only significant area of study where Columbia has an edge over Wharton is non-profit management, where it is ranked ninth out of 11 top schools in this area by U.S. News & World Report. Wharton doesn’t rate at all in this field.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.