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Forget the MBA! or Do You Really Need a ‘Master of Business Administration’?

MBA University Graduation Ceremony

MBA enrollments in the US are declining, and plenty of voices are questioning the value of an MBA.

I left a tenured professorship after 30 years to explore new ways to help leaders run their businesses because the truth is, the model for most business education isn’t geared to what’s needed in business today.

What’s required to run a business has changed since the first MBA program began at Harvard in 1908, moving from information mastery to building connections in a dynamic environment. Information can be found in books or online. So do you really need an MBA to get the information or make the connections you need?

Should you get an MBA?

Before you fill out an application, consider the real costs and benefits.

Good reasons to get an MBA:

  • The job you want requires or recommends an MBA.
  • The people in the job you want all have MBAs.
  • You enjoy learning at a structured pace.
  • You want better critical thinking skills.
  • You want or need the broad curriculum provided in such a program.
  • You can get it without jeopardizing your financial, family, or work life.
  • You want the network of contacts a particular MBA program offers. This network is important. That’s why an MBA from a high-profile school may be worth more than one from East Pohunky.
  • You’ve been working five years or more and have experiences to take back into the classroom. Note: You’ll want other students in the classroom who also have real experience—you can learn more from them than from the professors.

Bad reasons to get an MBA:

  • You just want a piece of paper but you really aren’t interested in working hard or learning. That piece of paper may (or may not) get you a job, but it won’t keep it for you. Can you do something useful for the company hiring you?
  • You could better spend the time on more lucrative, more productive, or more pleasurable pursuits. Would you earn a better return on your investment developing a specific skill rather than on a more general MBA?
  • You just finished college and want to stay in the cocoon a bit longer.
  • The expense.

If you decide an MBA isn’t right for you—or not right for you now—you can change your mind later. Grandmothers and successful executives and entrepreneurs routinely earn degrees alongside mid- and early-career students.

Consider alternatives:

The future isn’t in generalized credentials but in specific knowledge. Are there better, faster, cheaper, more targeted ways to get the information and the skills you need?

Many, including Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, say that higher education faces a major shake-up or disruption, just as we’ve seen in other industries.

With disruption comes alternatives. For example, maybe you’re great at coding but know nothing about finance. Consider free or inexpensive online courses or university certificate programs rather than a degree.

Or do you have a great business idea but need to know about marketing? A theory-based MBA course won’t help you as much as a talented mentor in marketing or a specialized workshop or internship.

If you decide an MBA is for you:

I’ve had students who’d already made their fortunes as entrepreneurs or had successful careers and didn’t need an MBA but wanted to fill in gaps in their skillset, wanted to make connections, or wanted the intellectual energy of a classroom. If that’s the case, then …

  • Find the best (and most reasonably priced) MBA program that will admit you. It’s not a house—few get a starter MBA and trade up to a better model later. However, “best” doesn’t mean “most expensive.” More on that later.
  • Wait until you have some business experience. The more you bring to the classroom, the more you can take away.
  • Find a program that focuses on real-world application rather than “book-learning.” They all say they do – but check out the professors. How much real-world experience do they have in the fields they’re teaching?
  • I have a bias: choose a program with face-to-face classes. Online is a good alternative if you don’t live near a university and can’t move away from your job or family. But online materials are often nothing more than a fancy textbook. You can learn a lot from a book (or online materials), but very few people lead a business from a computer monitor.

The real world requires interaction with others. A classroom ought to be a place where you can knock the rough edges off yourself, learn from your colleagues, learn how to draw on the skills of others to compliment your skills, and learn how to most effectively analyze a situation and present your case.

  • Networks are valuable. Look for programs that offer case studies and access to connections in the region or the business in which you’ll be working.

Consider the full cost:

A full-time program means leaving your job and probably moving to another city. With tuition, living expenses, and loss of income, the cost of a two-year program can easily top $200,000.

If you want to work on Wall Street or in a high-pressure, high-profile job, that $200,000 two-year degree might be worth it for you because your life-time earning potential is significantly higher.

If you don’t plan to move to New York City or London and you just want to get a job, don’t kid yourself. A more expensive degree isn’t necessarily a better one. And it’s hard to reach “the good life” climbing over a mound of debt.

Consider alternatives:

Can you work and go to school part-time? If so, you can continue to move up in your job—maybe faster because you’re learning things that make you better at your job.

If possible, don’t borrow the money. Or borrow the bare minimum. National student loan debt now outstrips credit-card debt. Avoid contributing to that statistic, especially if you already have undergraduate debt.

Don’t let your education become the house you wanted to buy—because now you can’t afford a mortgage. Lots of people go to school while working and don’t borrow money. Lots go to less expensive schools and are still successful.

Bottom Line?

You can go to school while working. You can go to a less expensive school. You can still be successful and not be in debt.

If you decide to go to school, dig deeply and get everything you can from the experience.

Don’t go to school unless you truly need that credential. It’s not a magic admission ticket to the executive ranks. Instead, make a wide range of connections you can learn from. Find interesting, creative ways to educate yourself when and where you need it. Life-long learners go farther than people who only have fancy pieces of paper.

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