Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, is documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals. Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.
Every day, it’s getting harder to answer whether an M.B.A. is worth the money. Yet that’s a question we all need an answer during the application process. While many graduates of top MBA programs laud the experience, what I read online and in print hasn’t always been as encouraging. How I’ve thought about the value of an M.B.A. has been influenced by the reviews, both good and bad. After all, I still maintain that an M.B.A. has exceptional value as long as we go for the right reasons.
I didn’t have to look far to find people who questioned the value of business school. Just cracking open the pages of the Wall Street Journal can be a harrowing experience for anyone considering the degree. Recently, I read a WSJ article titled “M.B.A. Applications Decline at Harvard, Wharton, Other Elite Schools as Degree Loses Luster.” It talked about how the decline in applicant interest in M.B.A. programs has even begun to impact top programs. Another WSJ report from the summer glumly remarked that “while most people who invest in M.B.A. education will get offered a job, it might not necessarily be the job they want”.
If the de facto newspaper for M.B.A. graduates is pointing out these troubling signs, then we should all take notice.
IS THE MBA ON THE DOWNSIDE?
This is not first time I’ve heard people speculate that the future of M.B.A. programs is bleak. Yet it is one of the first times that such speculation is backed up by credible alternatives. In my case, I’m interested in learning more about the technical and quantitative parts of finance. To use the University of Chicago as an example, I could get a masters in Computer Science and Financial Math for roughly the same cost as an M.B.A. from Booth. While either master’s degree would make for a very different student experience, they would be a rough substitute for those technical skills I have been looking to hone.
It seems like a situation right out of case study in economics: as the number of substitutes for a given product increase, the product’s share of the overall market will likely decrease. It feels like the last few years have been the first time that these specialized programs could serve as a legitimate way to avoid footing the bill for a full-time M.B.A.
I’m painfully aware of how expensive an M.B.A. is. After I completed my MIT Sloan application, I was greeted by a page showing an estimate of the cost of attendance from the school. The projected total cost was north of an eye-watering $200,000 – and that doesn’t factor in the opportunity cost of foregone salaries! The application process is as grueling as a marathon. That message took out my air like a punch to the gut. That $200K cost would put a sizeable dent in anyone’s budget. It also makes seeking a cheaper substitute sound pretty appealing.
TWO WAYS TO LOOK AT THE MBA
Still, I think there are two paths to getting a whole lot of value out of an M.B.A. The first path I considered pursuing was a common one. I would go to business school to secure a prestigious job in an exclusive industry. I believe the McKinseys and Goldman Sachs’s of the world will very likely continue to hire students from elite programs because they make finding a large pool of talented potential employees easier. For someone who is chomping at the bit to try to leave their mark at one of these firms, an M.B.A. can be an excellent stepping stone to get that shot. Looking back at the University of Chicago as an example, the Class of 2017 had approximately 51% of its graduates entering into either finance (mostly banking) or consulting! That’s all great news, assuming that’s what you want to do. In my case it wasn’t, so I had to figure out what else would make business school worthwhile.
A slew of interviews and research has led me to a second view to justify the cost of business school. Business school is an incubator. It is a transformative place for people who know what they enjoy and why – but are still figuring out how they’ll pursue what they enjoy professionally. I know that I love business operations, particularly the hands-on process management and detailed work involved. Getting to tackle ambiguous challenges and grind out results sounds great, but how do I get there? I’m not entirely sure, but I know where to find some people who could help.
After interviewing dozens of graduates from top programs, I’m still amazed by how so many graduates can trace their career success back to interactions they had in business school. It can be a single experience, one special relationship, or the cumulative effect of someone’s time there. In all these cases, the story was the same. Going into an M.B.A. with an open mind, both personally and professionally, lets our plans be challenged. It also exposes us to new potential paths for development. It can take the form of a favorite professor’s advice during office hours or a memorable conversation with a classmate from a different background. Either way, the two years spent on campus for an M.B.A. will dramatically increase our chances to uncover more about ourselves and what gets us excited professionally. It gives us the time to take a breath, be reflective on our experiences, and make those adjustments early in our working lives. This can make the difference between middling success and an exceptional career.
Coming into an M.B.A. program with a mix of self-knowledge and admitted ignorance about what the future may hold is how I hope to unlock the real value of an M.B.A as a formative experience. It’s not about the paper, or a fancy job waiting at the end. From Fortune 100 CEOs to 2018 grads, what I have heard across the board is that the real value of going to business school is how it shapes our outlook on ourselves, our careers, and how the two relate.
Now I just have to figure out how to get in one!
Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.