The Best MBA Alumni Networks

Mendoza College of Business Dean Martijn Cremers greets students at the orientation breakfast for incoming 2-year MBA class (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Your business school is your brand. It conveys your values and guides your mission. More than an identity, your alma mater is a shared experience that connects past, present, and future students. That’s why the MBA is more than just a degree. It is an unspoken agreement to pay it forward, to open the same doors as alumni will unlock for you.

What brings you to business school often inspires you to return. At the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, that differentiator is vocation. It is a place that champions faith and fairness and nurtures the mind and spirit. At the same time, Notre Dame’s heritage is grounded in the moral obligation to act, to ask more of yourself – and more from business too. That duty carries over to Notre Dame’s network, 140,000 strong total with 14,000 at Mendoza alone. It is this shared mindset that draws MBA candidates to South Bend – and compels them to help the students who follow in their footsteps.


“One of the things that leads to the strength of the network is really our mission,” explains John Rooney, Director of Graduate Business Career Services, in an interview with Poets&Quants. “Students buy into the mission of Notre Dame, which is, business can be a force for good. They feel like they’re joining a community and something that’s bigger than themselves. So that leads to viewing yourself as part of a group versus an individual getting an MBA. I think there’s a bigger message and a sense of community around the mission that pulls everybody together and makes the whole networking piece really integrated into everything we do and that strengthens every interaction in that regard.”

University of Michigan Ross Dean Scott DeRue

In contrast, the University of Michigan is the prototype public research institution. Home to 46,000 students, the school is based in Ann Arbor, a timeless college town where one of every two residents is a student. The larger university boasts blue-chip programs in future-defining areas like engineering, biomedicine, and computer science. At the same time, the crown jewel – the Ross School of Business – ranks among the top American programs in nearly every academic specialization. Each year, the school spends over $1.5 billion dollars on research, with an alumni base numbering 600,000 (including 50,000 at Ross alone).

Despite the university’s scale, Ross MBAs are often described as “supportive” and “always available.” They are virtues, coupled with the school’s scale, that make Ross alumni formidable advocates for students. “I like to tell prospective students that you’re not making a two-year decision,” says Dean Scott DeRue in an interview with P&Q. “You’re making a lifetime decision. As part of that lifetime decision, what type of culture and community do you want to be part of? We very intentionally try to connect our prospective students with alumni so they get a feel for the type of community that Ross is all about. When that fit is there, it’s magical. Alumni are the very mechanism for us to start building and sustaining this culture that is near-and-dear to the Michigan Ross experience.”


Separated by 180 miles, Ross and Mendoza share four distinct seasons and a passion for football – on the surface at least. Beyond the rich resources and global renown, what do they really have in common? Obviously, both are storied programs in bucolic Americana. They also advocate a nearly identical “Act local and think global” philosophy. Being a Ross or Mendoza grad means you are a purpose-driven leader who heeds the call to make a larger social impact. And their graduates return to the business world to exemplify and evangelize their schools’ values. This advocacy carries into their roles as alumni – and not just with MBA students.

“What you build into the culture naturally becomes part of the alumni experience as well,” says Wendy Correll, Director of Major Gifts at Ross. “Alums are helping to facilitate experiences for students, but they’re also helping one another. When you go forth as an alum, you’re moving to a new city. You’ll have a natural network there because our alumni are helping one another. Even when they’re 50 years old and thinking about a career switch or moving to a different company, they’re reaching out to a fellow alum to pick their brain. This support does last a lifetime.”

Your network is your net worth, as the saying goes. At Ross, alumni support is paying high dividends according to students. Each year, The Economist conducts an annual survey on the best MBA alumni networks. Targeting current students and the most recent graduating class, The Economist asked respondents to score alumni support on a scale of 1-to-5 (with 5 being the highest mark).


Student-Alumni luncheon at the Mendoza College of Business

This year, Michigan Ross tied with Stanford GSB for the highest score at 4.78. Both schools edged out Dartmouth Tuck, whose alumni network was profiled in 2018, by just .01 of a point. Northwestern Kellogg and the Wharton School rounded out the Top 5 with 4.75 and 4.70 scores respectively. Notre Dame Mendoza, which ranked 4th in last year’s survey, fell to 8th overall, just .01 of a point behind Harvard Business School and INSEAD.

Big picture, alumni effectiveness produced some of the highest scores in The Economist’s entire survey. Ten business schools averaged a score of 4.6 or better in this category. That compares favorably to the number of schools that fit in the same range for faculty quality (8), culture (4), overall program (2), and career services (1). Better yet, 19 of the 31 programs that P&Q pulled from The Economist survey increased their alumni score over the previous year.

The biggest improvement came at the University of Washington’s Foster School, whose score jumped from 4.0 to 4.69. The London Business School and IESE experienced a .46 and a .45 increase respectively. Seven others climbed by .20 of a point or better: UCLA Anderson, INSEAD, Northwestern Kellogg, Texas McCombs, North Carolina Kenan-Flagler, the Wharton School, and U.C.-Berkeley Haas. Still, not every business school enjoyed a surge in alumni support. Notably, Indiana Kelley’s score plummeted from 4.51 to 3.89. Stranger still, USC Marshall, regaled for its Trojan Network, tumbled from ranking 5th last year to 15th, losing .19 of a point in the process.


So what sets programs like Ross and Mendoza apart when it comes to alumni engagement? Admittedly, Ross integrates alumni into the usual touch points. Still, Wendy Correll points to accessibility as a big selling point. At Ross, she says, students can make a personal connection with anyone from a technical person at Reddit to former General Mills CEO Steve Sanger. This difference has only increased in value as Ross has cast a wider net.

“We’ve pivoted a little for our alumni engagement,” Correll explains. “It’s not just having alumni come to campus – it is alums engaging from where we are. With our 50 alumni clubs around the world, we’re bringing our alums in to speak at those events or host our students when they travel to cities for treks. It’s not just about an experience they might have here on campus, it is that life-long experience they can have with the school.”

Not surprisingly, the role of alumni is hammered home early at both programs. At Ross, that starts at orientation, where alumni speakers outline how alumni helped open career pathways for them. In contrast, Mendoza holds Industry Deep Dives during the first month of the MBA program. These events focus on particular functional areas, including finance, marketing, general management, consulting, and technology. In a nutshell, four or five alums will descend on campus for each session and deliver an in-depth presentation on what it’s like to work in a particular area, says Mendoza’s John Rooney.

Notre Dame’s John Rooney

“For example, each alum will take a particular aspect of consulting like how to put together a pitch deck or how to manage a client. In marketing, it might be a particular aspect of brand management like how to work with a creative agency or leverage data and consumer products. So we do these deep dives for about two hours and that includes a Q&A session. After that, we have a networking session where the students can interact with these alumni who are successful in these functional areas. So, there’s five of those and they last three hours and they go through the first two weeks of class. I think it has been really positive.”


Ross alumni also receive prominent roles in the school’s signature events. That includes the required Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) course. Here, first-years partner with sponsor companies – many overseas – to complete a project. For example, past MAP projects have included designing three-year growth strategies for Microsoft’s Xbox in Germany or identifying ways to speed up Whirlpool’s product development process. Among the 200 MAP projects that Ross students tackle each year, half are sponsored by Ross graduates according to Dean DeRue. By the same token, he adds, 20-40 alumni return to campus each year for the Leadership Crisis Challenge, where students have 24 hours to respond to a crisis, facing alumni who play stakeholders ranging from outraged activists to skeptical board members.

“The students see that,” DeRue notes. “When they become alumni, they want to do the same thing. It becomes this mutually-beneficial, reinforcing cycle. We’re creating these unique learning experiences across the school that benefits our students and engage alumni in meaningful ways too.”

Economist survey results found on page 4. 

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