CentreCourt Chicago: Deans Scott DeRue & Jeffrey Brown On The MBA, Its Cost & Value

Scott DeRue and Jeffrey Brown, the respective deans of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business, are pretty outspoken fellows. In this panel discussion at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in Chicago, they speak at length on a vast majority of topical issues, from the high cost and value of the MBA degree to the proliferation of the degree around the world and how many MBA programs now have a negative ROI for their graduates.

Watch the conversation or read the edited transcript below.


  • John A. Byrne – Editor-In-Chief, Poets&Quants
  • Scott Derue – Dean at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan
  • Jeffrey Brown – Dean, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

John A. Byrne: Ten years ago, Lehman Brothers, a very famous investment-banking firm, collapsed. The collapse of the firm led to the onset of the Great Recession, and a lot of people blamed MBAs for both Lehman’s demise and the economic implosion. Do the deans agree with the naysayers of the MBA who blamed business schools for that collapse? And has business education been informed in any meaningful way by what happened in 2008?

Jeffrey Brown: Obviously, I don’t agree that you can blame the financial crisis on MBA students any more than I believe you can blame it on PhD economists, which I’m also one. I think there were a lot of important factors that went into the financial crisis, and we don’t need to go through them all here. I think though that what people are referring to when they make that criticism is an often heard but not well-grounded criticism of business schools, that we’re just focused on teaching the profit maximizing model and that greed is good.

I don’t think that reflects what business school education is like at most institutions today. I know that at Gies, we emphasize quite heavily a sense of professional responsibility and ethics. We look for it in our admissions profile. We look at it in what we teach. We look at it in how we enforce our own academic integrity rules within the program. I think the intensity of that has probably increased over the last decade, but beyond that, I think the changes that came post-Great Recession really had more to do with the areas in which students are expressing interest. There was a bit of a decline in the interest of going into finance, with more students interested in entrepreneurship and healthcare and things of that nature.

Scott DeRue: I would concur entirely. I don’t think there’s any one entity, business schools or government, the private sector or the public sector, that can be blamed for a systemic economic crisis that ultimately became a global crisis. Businesses and business schools have many things to learn from the crisis. At the same time, we have to look at how the public sector and government regulates financial services. We saw a lot of movement there after the economic crisis. We have to think about how economies across the globe are interdependent with one another and what risks that interdependence creates.

There are many factors at play, and there’s been much research on the causes and consequences of the economic crisis. I would entirely agree in terms of what role business schools can play from admissions to ensuring that we are attracting and recruiting diverse talent with character and integrity, and that we educate those students in understanding these risks and understanding their role as business leaders. So we have a part to play in ensuring that we’re doing right by society, but I don’t think any one entity is to blame.

Byrne: Do you agree that there’s been less interest in finance by MBAs as a result of what happened, and maybe even less interest by banks and financial institutions in MBAs mainly because of downsizing?

DeRue: We’ve seen a shift in financial services over the last decade to 15 years in terms of where they’re hiring. They’re not hiring fewer business students, but there has been a significant shift from graduate to undergraduate hiring. At Michigan Ross, roughly 15% or so of our full-time MBAs will go into financial services, with many of those students entering investment banking. There’s some corporate finance as well. But 40% to 43% of my undergraduates go into financial services each year. I fundamentally believe that students go where opportunities exist. Banks have shifted their hiring more towards undergraduate than graduate. So we see that play out in where our students go.

Brown: We’re seeing similar trends. We tend to think of industries and occupations as the same thing, but they’re not, even within financial services. We’ve seen an uptick in focus on risk management, for example, things of that nature, but I think in general, I completely agree with Scott.

DeRue: What has happened is other industries have come in and picked up that hiring. Technology is the new finance for MBAs.

Byrne: Amazon now hires 1,000 MBAs a year. I can’t even get my head around that.

DeRue: You know, we’re very proud to be their number one supplier of talent. Depending on the year, Amazon hiring at Ross can range from the 50s to the upper 80s.

Byrne: Do all those MBAs have meaningful jobs at Amazon?

DeRue: Amazon and its MBA hiring is fascinating. One of the reasons that MBAs love to go work at Amazon is the level of responsibility that you get quickly. We have students a year or two out of the MBA program who are running very large fulfilment operations. We have graduates within maybe 10 to 12 years are running billion-dollar businesses at Amazon. It’s a meritocracy in the true sense, and if you can perform, there’s great opportunities. Amazon is not the only technology company, obviously, but a very important one for business schools these days.

Byrne: A lot of people use the MBA to transition from one industry to another. Some people move from out of a discipline like marketing or finance, and others use the MBA to relocate into a new geography. Some MBAs do the so-called triple jump and make all three career changes. Why has the MBA been such an effective tool to do that?

Brown: In today’s market, we often think about two different types of students. One is the type that you’re talking about. They’ve worked for three to five years, maybe seven. They’re looking to make a shift. The other, which we’re actually seeing much more of in the online space, are folks that are really there to build skills. They’ve found their passion. They know what they want to do. They may not even want to leave their current employer, but they really want the skill building. It’s a natural way to essentially come out and rebrand yourself. You’ve got significant job experience. You go into the MBA program. You have access to terrific faculty and career services that are bringing top employers to campus, and so in that sense, it’s a wonderful way to refresh your skills but also just frankly, send a strong signal that you’re looking to make that move.

If you come into an MBA program knowing that, “Look, I’ve been in consulting, and I want to switch into investment banking,” you can very much tailor your MBA experience to give you the skills you need for the career you’re targeting, not to mention the fact that you’re adding to your network by building into these phenomenal alumni networks. We both have some of the largest alumni networks out there. I’ve got 25,000 Gies alumni here in the City of Chicago, and it’s a pretty powerful way to leverage that if you’re looking to get a job in the investment industry in Chicago, for example.

Byrne: I look at the MBA as the quintessential degree of reinvention because so many people, in fact, reinvent themselves.

DeRue: Absolutely. If you want to reinvent yourself, make a shift in your career direction, change industries, change geographies, there is no better platform today than the MBA.

Byrne: An MBA education teaches you a lot of different skills that we take for granted, accounting, finance, marketing, strategy operations, but MBAs get a lot more than those business basics. Let’s talk about the less obvious things that people learn in an MBA program today. Scott?

DeRue: Sure. There’s certainly the business fundamentals that you’re describing, the functional skills, but the critical thinking skills, the analytical skills to be able to take a really unstructured problem and give it some structure so that you can get to a solution, that’s not a functional skill. The ability to work in a globally diverse team and be able to bring those people together and cut across any boundaries that you may have to influence that group to accomplish a shared goal, leadership, if you will. If you’re going into any sort of client service business, whether it’s consulting or investment banking, you will get to understand someone’s needs, to understand a company’s position and what it needs, and then be able to mobilize your team to be able to meet those needs.

If you’re going into any professional service, that is a critical skill. You might use the word empathy to understand where they’re at, where they’re trying to go. These are skills that are not functional. I describe business as a horizontal exercise much more so than vertical, especially these days given the sort of global, complex, very dynamic world that we’re training our students for. I tell our students on day one of our program, undergraduate and graduate every year, we’re training you for jobs that do not exist today. There are a certain set of complex adaptive skills that you need in order to thrive in that world. That’s what, to me, business school is all about.

Brown: I agree with everything you said. Just overall business acumen, the ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity and give it shape, those are exactly right. Also, the ability not just to deal with complex technical challenges and conceptual problems but also complex ethical challenges and problems. The world is not as clean-cut, and understanding the values of the organization, how your values align with it, that’s an important piece of it. Even just some very practical skills of learning the latest tools for data visualization or how to make a great presentation, those are all things that matter.

I tell my son that when people ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he should say, “My job doesn’t exist yet.” We cannot predict what the most valuable skills are going to be in 10 years, so what we can do is prepare you the best we can to go out in the workplace, to be intellectually agile, to be able to work with teams, to be able to continue your learning and give you a strong platform to be able to do that. I think that’s the most important thing we can do. I don’t think there’s any better degree ever created that allows for that.

Byrne: What about personal, s opposed to professional, development? That’s an area that many business schools have devoted a lot of attention to, with mentoring, coaching, and assessment tests.

DeRue: When we launched our Sanger Leadership Center, the core of the leadership model was really around personal growth, personal development. You can think of that in terms of values. You can think about that in terms of who do I want to be, not what does the world want me to be, and how do I craft my own journey? Think of that as leading self before you can lead your team, groups, and organization, and so we’ve built a number of both curricular and co-curricular programming for students to be able to discover who do I want to be and who am I.

That personal growth and development of understanding how to reach out and seek feedback, understand learning how to learn is so critically important because we’re preparing students for this world that doesn’t yet really exist. Deloitte published a study recently that said the half-life on skills in business today is two to three years. That means that not only are MBAs having to retool and reinvent themselves, but all of us are throughout our entire life. The personal growth and development piece is a toolkit and a skillset that’s not only going to create value for you in business school; these are life skills that are going to pay dividends forever.

Byrne: Why do MBAs cost so much money? A lot of people look at the sticker price, and they’re in total shock today. Is the MBA really worth it, and are people paying that sticker price to get the degree?

DeRue: John, I think this is a really important question. We have to understand that demand drives price, not cost, and value determines demand. So the question is for every MBA program on this planet, what’s the return on investment? What’s the value that you’re offering a student? That’s the question. Unfortunately, there are too many MBA programs in the world. There are too many MBA students because there are too many MBA programs, and many of those programs cannot provide a return on investment that justifies the tuition. You can define return on investment however you want for yourself. You can define that as a job that pays me a certain amount in year one. You can define that as a path to a longer-term economic value. You can define that in terms of meaning and being able to create a career that’s meaningful to you.

The question is will the MBA program that you’re thinking of attending deliver the value that justifies the investment. At most top-tier MBA programs, you’re not paying full sticker price. So call that a scholarship. In business, we would call it a price discount. So there’s significant amounts of money that are being earmarked for financial aid and scholarships across most schools. But even if you pay full tuition, which many students do, the question is what value are you getting in return. So you could pay $120,000 and in two years double your salary and put yourself on a pathway to very high economic growth for yourself over the next 20 years, the payback period might be five years for loans that you have and then after that you’re off to the races. Demand at top business schools suggest the value is still there.

Brown: I’m gonna partly agree and partly disagree. If you think about the number of MBA programs out there today and you think about the sticker price of most programs, yeah, there’s too many of them. That’s why, frankly, a lot of MBA programs lose money outside of the top tier. It’s a very competitive market. Having said that, I want to disagree with a little bit, about the idea that there’s too many MBA students. It depends on what you mean by that. The MBA is providing a certain skill set and an opportunity to educate people that’s going to allow them to go out in the workforce and be even better at what they do and create value, not just for themselves but for society.

We decided a few years ago that there was a huge segment of the population that didn’t have the resources to be able to go and pay $100,000 or $200,000 for an MBA, but who would still really get a lot of value out of what an MBA had to offer. So we decided to do something enormously disruptive and that’s why we introduced our iMBA, our Illinois iMBA. It’s an online program in partnership with Coursera, where you can get your MBA degree for $22,000 from our best faculty. This was really disruptive in the industry. We’re serving a different segment of the market than students who might want to go and spend two years at Harvard Business School, but that has completely changed the value equation for a lot of people.

I always like to talk about impact as being excellence times scale, we’ve got the excellence and now this is an opportunity for us to scale this and reach a lot more people. So I don’t know exactly what it means to say there’s too many MBAs. We think there’s a huge market out there that we’re going to be able to reach through this for whom the value propositions isreally strong.

DeRue: So I’m not worried about your MBAs. I’m worried about all the programs out there where the return on investment is negative. There are over 12,000 business schools in the world. And I think there are, to your point, much more efficient and economical ways to meet the needs of the students attending the majority of those schools. There are schools where you have to pay more in tuition than your average salary in year one coming out of them.

Brown: And one of the things you’ll learn in an MBA program is that’s not a good deal.

DeRue: Your total investment is not zero. It’s negative. That’s problematic.

Brown: I agree completely with that.

Byrne: Offering an online MBA for $22,000 is kind of shocking. Scott, Michigan Ross recently announced an online MBA that will launch next fll. I assume you’ll charge a lot more than $22,0000.

DeRue: Yes.

Byrne: What’s the difference between the two programs?

Scott DeRue: We haven’t announced the specifics of exactly what’s going to be in the program, but what you’re going to see is an online MBA for largely working professionals, so think part-time, but you can take it full-time. But the target market is people that generally want to do it part-time. In our case, we bring our brand and our value proposition to the market. At Michigan Ross, we have built the most experiential ‘hands on’ business education on the planet. And the same will be true for our online MBA. Much of the core content in finance, marketing, etc., will be delivered via online channels. But if you’re an online MBA student at Ross, you’re going to engage in a number of residencies, whether it be in Ann Arbor, or some other place in the world, where you are working in globally diverse teams, with real companies like Google and Facebook, on real problems. And you are going to be merging your education with the hands-on, action-based learning that defines a Michigan Ross MBA. And that’s going to be a very hybrid-like experience that we’re really excited about.

Byrne: And in general, experiential learning has really increased in most MBA programs. Why is it so valuable?

DeRue: The evidence suggests that you learn more by doing. Even more so, for the return on investment, as prospective students, you’re thinking what am I going to get out of this? I want to make sure that you’re going to hit the ground running on day one, as fast as possible. And so the more that we can merge the education with your career interests, the more you can see how the tools that you’re learning in business school apply in the role that you’re going to have, both on day one as well several years down the road. So that’s one.

Second, you’re getting to work with leading companies all around the world. So, at Michigan Ross we’ll do 200 consulting projects with companies, about 40% of these outside the United States this year. We’ve got more student-run investment funds than any business school. Our students in the last five years have started over 200 businesses with $200 million of follow-on venture funding. You are developing real skills, real capabilities through these experiences that you can’t replicate in a classroom. The beauty is we’re merging those experiences with what you’re learning in the classroom, and we’re going to do the same thing with our online MBA.

Brown: This is not a contest between Michigan and Illinois, and I have enormous respect for Michigan. But we are already doing these things as well, both in the face-to-face MBA and in the online program. In the first year of our traditional MBA program, you’re going to have three required client-based projects. You’re going to have two in your first semester. One that’s focused on marketing and another that is a more general overall experiential learning project. In the spring semester, you’re gonna have a global emergent experience with an international client. So you’re gonna get experience with both kind of regional and national firms in the first semester, global firms in the second. We’ve got a 25-year-old Illinois business consulting, which is more of an extracurricular program, where if you want even more of it, you can do it. You can have as many as six projects, hands-on learning experience, three are gonna be required in the program. And we are implementing that in the online space as well. So, we agree.

We’ve made a huge investment in action learning, have a whole unit dedicated to that. We’re actually also doing it at the undergraduate level, we do it in our Master’s of Finance programs, so very similar. And I mean, I give Michigan a lot of credit. They were a leader in this space. But we’re very much in that game, as well. And it’s for exactly the reasons you said is that … The feedback that we get from our students about the level of preparation they feel, the sense to which they feel like they’ve been able to bring alive, the lessons that we’ve taught them, the ability to integrate concepts across the different courses, bring it to bear on a real-life problem that might be in a different industry, different type of company, as you said, working with diverse teams. Those are the skills that employers are looking for. And there’s also from … I’m sure you see this, too, there are some really practical benefits to this right out of the gate, which is if you enroll in an MBA program and you’re gonna be on campus in a couple of weeks, and you’re already gonna be going out to interview for internships and jobs and stuff like that, what a great thing to be able to talk about than you’re three weeks into the program and you’re already working on a client-based project. So, these things are powerful. And I think it’s here to stay. It’s a really important part of what we do.

Brown: I will say. We deans, we like to compete with each other for students and faculty, but the truth of the matter is, we are all … You know, these big public universities that have these great business schools, we are all mission-driven and we share a lot, so we share best practices, so these guys were leaders in action learning and experiential learning and we copied some of what they do. We like to think that we’re the leader in online and like to think that maybe they’re gonna learn something from us. But that’s one of the great things, you’re gonna …. You know, when you go to a great university and a great business school, whether it’s Illinois, Michigan, or any other ones that aren’t represented here, there’s gonna … You know, we all have our unique approach. We all have our unique way of doing it, but we’re all driven by a lot of the same values and a lot of the same … we’re gonna provide a lot of the same opportunities and experiences for you.

Byrne: And I will say, on experiential learning, one of the things that is different at Ross is that the math project stops the whole academic experience, right? And you work exclusively with a client for how long?

DeRue: Two months. So we’re the only business school that, as part of its core curriculum required, it’s basically the last two months of your first year, everything else shuts down. No other classes. You’re in a team of about six students, two faculty per team, and you’re partnered with a leading organization somewhere in the world, again about 40, 50% of those outside the United States, and for two months you’re applying the concepts and the tools that you’ve learned, the business fundamentals that you’ve learned throughout your first year, and putting those into practice. You could think of it as a second internship in many regards.

Byrne: And then the other thing that has happened more recently is you’ve done an elective offering as well that dives very deep into a specific company or division of a company, which is truly unique.

DeRue: Yeah, when I first became dean, I flew out to San Francisco and I had breakfast with John. And I told him about this crazy idea that I had, that we were gonna start building business inside the business school that our students would run. And some of them we would own entirely, some of them we would do in partnership with leading companies, leading brands, and you and a number of my dean colleagues looked at me with a heavy dose of skepticism. One of my dean colleagues said, ‘you are nuts.’ And a member from the media, not yourself, said, ‘you will never be able to scale and pull that off.’ And we have. And so our goal is to have a dozen of these. We’ve got seven up and running. And we range from a luxury goods company, so we launched with Shinola, which is one of the fastest-growing luxury retail brands in the U.S. Little-known fact, 24 Michigan Ross students cutting across marketing, supply chain, digital e-commerce, and back-office finance and accounting, launched or helped launch their high-end audio business last year. We have a job placement and training service for victims of human trafficking, where companies can access talent that they wouldn’t otherwise access. And everything in between those. And so we’re building businesses inside the school that our students get hands-on, real-world experience running and leading real functions and it’s been a remarkable journey and our students are raving about the experience.

Byrne: So let me just switch to something else… There’s been a significant decline in international applicants to U.S. business schools. Some of these applicants believe that the United States is no longer a welcome place to come. Some of them worry that if they do come, they won’t get a visa to work here. And all the anti-immigration rhetoric in this country in the past 18 months to two years has really turned off and scared a lot of people. What impact is that having on the business school community and is that something that is … you see as temporary problem or challenge that we will overcome or something that has more permanence?

Brown: So there’s no doubt that we’ve seen those trends, right? I think nationally, look at any of the numbers, and there are a lot of reasons for it. I think to the extent … What impact is it having? I mean, the good news is is that for many of us, we’ve got an excess of demand for our programs. So in terms of there being a financial impact or what have you, it’s not that great, you know, because fewer international applicants, we’ve got plenty of domestics that wanna take their place. The problem is part of the educational experience is to get this global exposure. And one way to do that is through the projects, through trips abroad, that sort of thing, but part of it is by having a very globally diverse student body, right? So I worry a little bit about that. It harms business education broadly if we don’t have the representation. In terms of, is it a permanent or a temporary thing, what I will tell you is the higher education in the United States has been the envy of the world for decades, right? But other countries have not been sitting still. You look at Europe, you look at Australia, you look at most countries in Asia, China, Singapore, and so forth, they’ve been investing heavily in their own higher education system, including coming and hiring lots of faculty from U.S. universities at high salaries to attract them abroad. They’re gonna absolutely make use of this to try to broaden their non-U.S. global reach. And if they’re successful at doing that and building up their own reputation to the point where they can rival that of the U.S., then that could be a more permanent effect. And only time will tell. I still think we have the best higher education system anywhere in the world by a long shot, but that gap is narrowing compared to what it was 10 or 20 years ago. And time will tell.

DeRue: We’re taking a long-term view in the sense that business is global and will continue to be global and we have and will continue to have a very inclusive community and we will work tirelessly to ensure that our U.S. students and our non-U.S. students have the career opportunities that they earn and deserve. And so we’re working with our companies and our corporate partners all around the world, in fact, to ensure that that is the case. Certainly, the trend nationally has, to your point, we’ve seen fewer applications coming from outside the United States and that trend is affecting everyone. And so that’s no surprise. But I think most importantly, if we admit someone, I think we have an obligation or responsibility to do everything that we possibly can to build an inclusive environment that is consistent with our values and ensures that we’re doing everything we can to prepare that student for the opportunities that he or she aspires to and do everything we can via accessing our alumni network, our corporate partner network, to ensure that they have opportunities and that’s true whether you’re a U.S. student or a non-U.S. student. And our career outcomes for non-U.S. students last year were actually up, not down. And so, again, I’m playing the long-term here, not the short-term.

DeRue: I’ll just add one thing to that real quick. So we’ve long, at the University of Illinois in its entirety, the whole university, has had a pretty special relationship with China, going back a hundred years or more. We have a large student population from China, and we value them enormously as part of the environment on campus. That’s a country … To your point, in the short term, there are geopolitical tensions and so forth. We are responding by sort of doubling down on the experience. We want to make sure that they feel, not only welcome but supported every step of the way. We’re increasing our investments in the kind of efforts we make to help ensure that if for whatever reason, they’re unable to get a job in the U.S., we’re going to help them. We’re going to use our networks, our alumni networks, and corporate contacts back in Asia, help find positions there. So I agree with you. I mean, we all feel that once you’re a student in our college, I don’t care where you’re from, where you did your undergrad, what country you’re born in, your race, gender, ethnicity. You’re part of our family, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure you’re successful.

Byrne: All right. Let’s see if we have any questions from those who are here. Does anyone have a question?

Christine Nelson: Hi. I’m Christine Nelson. I am looking at applying this year. I guess I had a question about trends when it comes to MBA hiring. You mentioned that technology is the new finance, which makes sense for many reasons. I wondered if there are any other trends you’ve been seeing, I don’t know, that maybe aren’t as apparent as that one when it comes to hiring of MBAs?

Brown: I’d point to a couple, but you might have a similar or different experience. Not only technology. It’s pretty obvious that healthcare is going to continue to be a growing sector. As a sector, which is like 20% of our economy now, they’re beginning to recognize more and more the need for the kind of discipline and skills that business brings. Then, of course, it almost goes without saying that anything that involves data. Skills with data, big data, data science, business analytics, whatever you want to call it, that’s cutting across industries and across occupations. One of the great things about both Michigan and Illinois is that we are on universities with strong engineering schools, with strong … We’ve got that breadth that we can draw upon, and that’s something I think you’d want to consider too.

DeRue: Yeah. I would concur entirely with data and healthcare. It’s the reason we launched concentrations just in the last few years both specifically around healthcare and data science and analytics within our MBA program. The one that may not be as obvious to you that I would also point out is, so, last year, we asked all of our students when they come in what career paths they’re interested in. Seventeen percent of our MBAs entering last year indicated that they wanted to have a business career that had a social impact or an impact in the world in some positive sense. Nearly one out of five raised their hand and indicated, “I want a career with a social impact.” That is reshaping how both businesses and business schools think about career opportunities. By social impact, it doesn’t necessarily mean go and work in a non-profit or a social enterprise, though it certainly can be that, and we have students who do that. It could be via healthcare. It could be through going to work for the largest supply chains in the world, Amazon, Walmart, whoever it might be, and cleaning up and making more sustainable the supply chain. It’s a wide range of things, but that’s one shift that we’ve also seen probably over the last five to 10 years that’s been quite remarkable and, in my opinion, quite inspiring.

Byrne: The other thing that’s happened is the MBA is increasingly perceived as an all-purpose degree. Years ago, there were many students who went to law school who had no intention of being a lawyer because it gave them a disciplined way of thinking in a framework. Then, when they discovered that law schools are exceptionally bad at getting their graduates jobs and it takes-

DeRue: Return on investment.

Byrne: Yes, and it takes three years instead of two, a lot of those people sort of opened their eyes to the MBA, and you’re right. They can go into government, non-profit NGOs, healthcare technology, consumer packaged goods, energy, et cetera, et cetera. You can pretty much go anywhere you want to go, and the skills that you’re going to get are far beyond those basics that we talked about initially. They’re going to go to personal development and transformation. They’re going to allow you to work in teams, get the best out of people, and do the kinds of things that are really helpful in any job you can possibly have.

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