Is the MBA a waste of time and money?
Andrew Ainslie, Dean of Simon Business School at the University of Rochester, argues that the degree has come under more scrutiny lately, thanks to the ever-rising cost of higher education. "But what's surprising to me is how much the industry contributes to its own devaluation," he writes in Poets and Quants. He lists some B-school faculty members "on the MBA bashing bandwagon," including Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford GSB and Chris Bones, former dean of the Henley Business School.
Ainslie goes on to make the case that--in spite of these bashers--the MBA remains a great investment. Here, in list form, are some points he makes, along with a few others I've gathered from conversations with entrepreneurs who have MBAs.
1. Your salary will increase.
Ainslie crunches data for the top 70 schools from the Forbes business school rankings. He found that between 2009 and 2013, there was "a healthy increase" in post-MBA starting pay over pre-MBA pay. In a nutshell, you're likely to earn a salary in the low six digits or high five digits if you have an MBA. Without one, you're likely to earn below $70,000 a year.
If your goal is to start your own business, then those salary figures might be meaningless to you. But before you dismiss the finding, remember: You'll have to fund that business. And there might be no more reliable source of cash than a biweekly paycheck. Many founders have told me that they wish they'd waited another year before starting their business, so they could've amassed more capital in the bank.
2. Your student debt will disappear faster than you think it will.
The data indicates that you'll be out from under your debt in a few years with the money you're making. According to Ainslie's numbers, you'll pay it back in fewer than four years if you attend a top-70 MBA program.
3. Your chances to land a middle-management position will improve.
Ainslie cites the the GMAC 2015 Corporate Recruiters Survey Report, according to which about 80 percent of companies are hiring recent B-school grads into middle-management jobs. Why? Mainly because, in the view of employers, the MBA certifies your skills in areas like analytics, communications, and problem-solving.
4. Your learning might benefit from traditional academic settings.
"There is huge value to be had by interacting with a faculty member and asking questions while participating in a class," writes Ainslie. He throws in a personal fact which is likely to resonate with anyone who has studied a complex topic by themselves: "Learning on one's own is brutally hard," he writes. "I did this as an 18-year-old when I had to spend a year studying physics on my own out of a textbook."
Of course, you could argue that in many online settings, you would not be learning on your own. Several startups in the education space are using virtual classroom methods which simulate in-the-flesh interactions. What you need to keep in mind is that learning is hard. Whether your support comes from classmates on campus or text boxes in chatrooms, make sure you lean heavily on it.
5. Your decision-making skills will improve.
John Mascari, co-founder of the startup Bundle Organics, received his MBA from Harvard Business School in 2012. He launched his company, which makes organic juices for expecting and new mothers, the following year.
"The most tangible entrepreneurial skill that my MBA taught me is how to make sound decisions in an uncertain environment," he says, citing HBS's case study method. Almost every day, HBS students have to articulate and defend solutions to business problems presented in case studies in front of 90 classmates and a professor eager to poke holes.
"As a founder, you are often faced with task of making difficult decisions with limited time and information," he says. He adds that you also have to defend those choices to customers, colleagues, directors, and investors.
6. Your network will multiply.
Cydni Tetro, founder and CEO of 3DPlusMe, a 25-employee 3-D printing company based in Orem, Utah, received her MBA from BYU in 1998. "Having the degree opens doors, provides credibility, and creates an invaluable network of people," she says. Her two-year-old company already boasts Marvel, Hasbro, and Major League Baseball as partners. Understanding the value of networking, she co-founded Utah's Women Tech Council in 2007. Today she serves as its executive director.
7. Your horizons will expand.
Not long ago I spoke to a successful real estate entrepreneur who told me he attended the MIT Sloan School of Management mainly because it gave him a viable excuse to leave his native Lebanon and come to the U.S. He has no regrets. You'll see why if you read his story.
The point is, you need not limit your view of the MBA-or-not debate to the degree's fiscal value. That debate is as old as business school itself. Which is to say, it's getting old: Wharton was founded in 1881. HBS, the first program to offer MBAs, was founded in 1908. Then, as now, the world was filled with entrepreneurs who excelled without a pricey piece of paper.
Today, the debates about the "value" of the degree versus real-world experience continue. Inc.com columnist Geoffrey James has listed books, videos, and job experiences which, in his view, are worth more than an MBA. By contrast, entrepreneurs like Rachel Cohen, founder of Snowe, believe their degrees are worth every penny.
Here's what you have to remember: The only thing that matters in this debate is you. A degree's value can't be measured in dollars only. Its meaning will also depend on your affinity for learning, your career path, and your desire to network.
It might even depend on your yearning to experience life in another part of the world.