MBA Programs With The Best Cultures & Classmates

Duke Fuqua MBAs at their orientation week

When you picture the University of Michigan and Duke University, blue probably comes to mind. It is the primary color they share. Blue symbolizes a timeless imagination and idealism, an openness that fosters trust and community. It is these blue virtues that define the Ross School of Business and the Fuqua School of Business.

There is a saying that, “Culture happens when the CEO leaves the room.” Just because they depart doesn’t mean they’re not watching. Scott DeRue, for one, has been closely observing his MBAs at Ross for over a decade. Now the dean, DeRue understands that cultural vision and values go hand-in-hand with consistent practices. When he looks out at his students – sometimes from the shadows – one word comes to mind with the Ross culture: Inspired.


At Ross, the student mission has evolved into using business as a force for “positive impact” in the world, both economically and socially. In the process, Ross has emerged as a leader in social impact, with over 100 events, clubs, and courses devoted to this end. However, Ross students also act local as they think global. That makes it a place, DeRue observes, where students carry high aspirations. Instead of acting as individuals, they focus on supporting and elevating their classmates. In helping their peers, Ross students make an impact far beyond Ann Arbor.

Dean Scott DeRue

“We’re developing people with that character and capability to not only lead and be effective themselves, but to bring everyone along with them, which is exactly the type of leadership talent that businesses and recruiters around the world are asking for,” DeRue told Poets&Quants in a February interview. “This isn’t only the culture we want as an organization to be important, it’s also developing people who are going to go off and create the same culture in organizations that they go on to work in. That’s a real important way that business schools can influence society in a big way. That’s inspiring to me.”

At Duke, this sense of esprit de corps comes with a certain mystique: Team Fuqua. Think of it as a code that spells out expectations and guides interactions between MBA students. Far from a gimmick, Team Fuqua is an expression of the values that have long defined the Fuqua experience. It is a means of channeling energies and holding people accountable – a vision of leadership where the value of the sum eclipses the individual parts.


The heart of Team Fuqua is the “Paired Principles,” a framework of six values that include Authentic Engagement, Supportive Ambition, Collective Diversity, Impactful Stewardship, Loyal Community, and Uncompromising Integrity. In a nutshell, the Paired Principles demand a higher level of openness, honor, and teamwork from students. And they have molded a culture that is spurred by passion and set apart by example.

It is a difference cited by employers, says Russ Morgan, the senior associate dean for full-time programs at Fuqua. During team interviews, for example, recruiters have told Morgan that Fuqua candidates are often the ones who take the time to learn about their peers’ strengths and place them in positions to contribute. Such tendencies are why Morgan would described the foundation of the Fuqua culture as collaborative and supportive.

“Our students want to be energized by people around them,” Morgan emphasizes in a February interview with P&Q. “They are supportive in the sense that they are more than willing to help each student not only get the best out of themselves, but the best out of others. For us, Team Fuqua is a way of working that’s embedded in our culture. That’s relevant when you’re a student, but it’s exceptionally relevant after you leave here.”


In any culture, the most difficult task is forging a consistency between belief and behavior. The second hardest part, of course, is sustaining buy-in and engagement. Those elements make Ross and Fuqua special. Each year, The Economist surveys current students and the most recent graduating class to score their school on culture and classmate quality. Sure enough, Ross and Fuqua have consistently ranked among the Top 10 programs in this area. On a five point scale, the schools finished at a 4.57 and a 4.54 respectively, barely a tenth of a point below U.C.-Berkeley (Haas), a principle-driven program that is the perennial favorite of surveyed students.

Ross’ Soojin Kwan

In some respects, the Ross and Fuqua cultures mirror each other. They are team-oriented and purpose-driven cohorts that are fueled by an underlying supportiveness. These cultures are hardly organic accidents, however. Instead, they are the fruits of intention, carefully built during recruiting and carefully nurtured over the two year MBA experience.

As an academic, DeRue’s research focused heavily on team dynamics and organizational fit. He believes one of Ross’ strengths is the admissions team’s ability to present school culture and identify candidates whose values are congruent with them. What kinds of students fit with the Ross culture? According to Soojin Kwon, Ross’ managing director of full-time MBA admissions, some of that comes out in the interview, which includes a timed team task coupled with a one-on-one.


“We look for someone who is willing to challenge themselves,” she shared in a February Q&A with P&Q. “They take risks and support others; it’s not just me first, but all of us together can create better things. Also, we want someone who values other people and other perspectives. They work hard and drop their egos and get things done.”

Fuqua takes an entirely different path to the same destination during recruiting. The program is best known for its “25 Random Things” essay question, where students rattle off 25 facts about themselves, which can range from defining life events to unique hobbies. A deceptively simple exercise that can be torturous to introverts and over-thinkers alike, the 25 questions are a cultural gatekeeper that helps Fuqua better gauge the level of talent, diversity, and potential fit with individual candidates.

“How does diversity manifest itself if everyone is writing the same essay or there is some target for what that essay sounds like,” Morgan wonders. “The 25 questions is engineered in a way to find out who you truly are. We’re letting you put the lens on it. What do you think are the most important things to tell us about? It takes the burden off of us to ask the right question and it allows the students themselves to tell us the things that define them.”

Go to Page 3 to see student and alumni survey scores given to 25 top MBA programs on culture and classmates. 

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.