Does It Matter Where You Get Your MBA?

by Genevieve Carlton
TheBestSchools.org

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Are you ready to discover your college program?

    Choosing the right MBA program is important, but not for the reasons you might expect.

    It's true that your choice of an MBA program can shape your career. But rather than simply targeting the top 25 business schools, prospective MBA students should think strategically when selecting their degrees.

    Prospective applicants should consider their unique needs and priorities. MBA programs have different specializations, strengths, and enrollment options, with a wide range of prices. When researching MBA programs, consider your career goals, ability to relocate, internship opportunities, and schedule flexibility. Carefully weighing these factors can help you find the best fit for your needs.

    Do Employers Care Where You Get Your MBA?

    The answer depends on your intended employer. Some companies focus on where candidates earned their MBAs, while others prioritize the degree specialization or relevant work experience.

    MBA rankings can give the impression that only graduates from top business schools find jobs, but that isn't true. In its 2018 B-School alumni report, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found that 91-97% of MBA graduates held jobs, regardless of what school they attended. The data included graduates from full-time two-year programs, accelerated pathways, part-time cohorts, and self-paced MBAs.

    According to U.S. News & World Report, the overall average base salary for new MBA grads in 2020, including signing bonuses, was $101,034. Prestigious programs reported even higher rates: Stanford University's 2020 graduates earned an average $176,083 salary. However, in certain lower-paying fields, such as the nonprofit or public sector, employers simply cannot match these salaries. Employers in these industries look for candidates with MBA-level skills who attended less prestigious programs.

    Some companies may emphasize professional experience and real-world accomplishments over attending a prestigious program. For candidates with little or no work experience, the reputation of their business school may matter more.

    The Impact of Program Prestige on Professional Success

    Attending a top MBA program can shape your career. However, finding the right program for your interests and career goals often matters more than program prestige. This section explores how prestige can influence professional success, including when entering the job market, to help individuals choose the right MBA program.

    Gaining admission to an elite program can yield a higher starting salary and more opportunities, but the top-ranking MBA programs also set high admission requirements. If your GPA and GMAT scores nearly match requirements for your intended school, consider retaking classes to increase your GPA or retaking the GMAT for a better score. However, if your scores do not meet the requirements, you're better off focusing your energy on finding a school that matches your needs.

    Elite MBA programs can easily cost $100,000 or more. Applicants must weigh this program cost against their budget and potential future earnings. While students qualify for financial aid to pay for an MBA, taking on student debt can limit a graduate's opportunities. Choosing an affordable program is often the savvier choice.

    Business school rankings correlate with higher starting salaries. Graduates of top-ranked MBA programs in 2020 reported starting salaries of over $170,000. However, prospective students should weigh those hiring salaries against the cost of the program and any debt they might incur. After taking into account potential salary growth throughout their careers, graduates from more affordable but less prestigious programs might get a better return on investment, especially if they intend to go into lower-paying fields, like nonprofit work.

    Many companies foster relationships with local business schools. For example, companies like Amazon and Microsoft often hire graduates from the University of Washington Foster School of Business. Students uninterested in relocating should prioritize business schools that are local, as those schools are likely to have professional connections in the area where they want to live.

    In addition to tuition, MBA enrollees must factor in the cost of living and other expenses. Many elite business schools are located in expensive cities, adding to the cost of the degree. However, depending on where the student lives, attending an online MBA program allows students to benefit from a lower cost of living.

    MBA specializations matter. Many programs offer multiple specializations, but not every concentration has the same prestige level as the program. Some programs earn a reputation for a specific specialization that outranks the business school's reputation. If you want to go into a specific area of business, research what schools rank the most highly for that specific specialization, as that reputation can be more important than the reputation of the overall business school.

    Networking plays a major role in success after business school. Some programs offer strong networking opportunities through alumni networks or faculty connections. For applicants targeting particular industries or companies, networking connections within that industry can outrank program prestige when it comes to job opportunities.

    MBA students complete internships to gain practical experience and build connections in their field, often as part of their programs. Completing a prestigious internship helps candidates launch their careers and make professional connections. Applicants should research each school's internship opportunities, particularly when considering online MBA programs, as the school's connections can make a big difference in what kinds of internships students can access.

    Where Should I Do My MBA From?

    Figuring out the best location for earning an MBA depends on the student. For some applicants, a local program makes the most sense. In other cases, relocating helps students reach their career goals. For example, attending a program with strong ties to local companies might make more sense than choosing an out-of-state program. With niche careers, candidates benefit from choosing programs that are well-regarded within that niche.

    Applicants must also consider their personal needs, including their schedule and ability to relocate. Leaving the workforce to move and attend a top program might make less financial sense than staying put and working while earning an online or hybrid MBA.

    Applicants should also research whether an international MBA program offers benefits over a U.S. program. An international MBA can open different doors, especially for individuals interested in global business or international companies. Some international programs also offer online options for American students.

    How Should I Choose My MBA Program?

    The best MBA program for one learner might not serve the needs of another. Rather than simply applying to top-ranking programs, applicants must carefully consider their needs and professional goals. For example, a student who wants to work in tech should prioritize programs that offer technology management specializations. Similarly, an expensive program might not pay off for someone interested in a nonprofit career, where salary rates tend to be lower.

    When looking at MBA rankings, balance your priorities against the methodology. Consider what factors the ranking prioritizes and ask yourself how they line up with your needs as a student. For example, TheBestSchools.org ranks online MBA programs, the most affordable MBA programs, and MBA programs with no GMAT requirement. By understanding your needs and priorities, you can use these rankings to find the right fit for you.

    Ask an MBA Graduate

    Esther Magna received her MBA and MPH degrees from UCLA's Anderson School of Management. For over 12 years, Esther has guided MBA applicants in her work as Principal with Stacy Blackman Consulting (SBC), a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. At SBC, Esther provides initial assessment for 900+ applicants annually; these applicants aspire to top MBA programs in the U.S. and around the world, including joint degree, executive, and college senior MBA programs. Esther's schools of expertise span Harvard University, Stanford University, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, INSEAD, and more.

    Where did you get your MBA?

    UCLA Anderson School of Management.

    At what point in your career did you get your MBA, and why then?

    I decided to apply for the MBA when I was four years into my career and while I was working in healthcare project management at Kaiser Permanente. My role was to spearhead patient safety initiatives across the organization of hospitals and physicians.

    I was at a crossroads in my professional path. I knew I wanted the rigorous education and analytical exposure that an MBA education offers; the grad degree was essential to advancing my career to the next level from the project management function.

    Also, four years of work tenure was the recommended average for MBA applicants, and I wanted to ensure I was optimizing my admit success with work tenure that was in line with the admissions process.

    Finally, I wanted to attain my grad degree before my focus pivoted to family life. I was newly married before applying to the MBA and wanted to attain the MBA admit and start the program well before starting a family.

    What did you specialize in, if anything? (What were your concentrations?)

    Yes, I opted for a healthcare specialization and added a second grad degree, the MPH, to my education.

    I chose healthcare because it reflects my career interests and has a double-bottom-line mission, where I could advocate for a company's business priorities and also for impact (e.g., the greater community good of effective healthcare).

    The foundation coursework of the MBA degree covered essential business principles — such as strategy, operations, marketing, economics — while the healthcare electives had an entirely different paradigm focus around community and societal priorities.

    What do you do for your career now?

    For the last 12 years in my role as principal for Stacy Blackman Consulting, I have dedicated my career to supporting young professionals, domestic and international, in advancing their own MBA aspirations.

    I advise about 900 applicants each year on ways to increase their MBA admissions chances to the top MBA programs, US and international, and also specialized programs, such as deferred admission (college senior 2+2), joint degree, and executive MBA programs.

    I also work closely with our company's founder, Stacy Blackman; leaders within the top MBA programs; and industry influencers across MBA-focused media sites to identify and disseminate key trends on higher education and MBA admissions.

    What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an MBA?

    I'd advise MBA-aspiring professionals to meet with career mentors and research online about the value of the MBA to ascertain their conviction for the business education and rough ideas for short- and long-term career goals. That research upfront, even if plans may change in the future, will help a young professional to not only get admitted to MBA programs but also to ensure that the student will get the most of the education from the start.

    It's ok to not have all the answers; career paths are constantly in flux even for those who think they are certain about their path ahead. Go easy on yourself.

    A recent Stanford MBA admit, who we guided through our MBA admissions consultant services, shared with me, "I think I am just most drawn to the personal development I'll get out of the degree. As with many type-A students and high-achievers, we never stop to evaluate the reason why we work so hard. The MBA program will be a great time to reflect on my sense of purpose and motivation for why I do things. Hopefully, that will also help me refine longer-term career goals."

    Similarly, I had no idea that I would fall into my current career of MBA admissions when I attended my MBA program. Be open to what lies ahead!

    What were your biggest considerations when selecting an MBA program?

    The MBA program brand and location were the two factors for me. I wanted to remain in Los Angeles because I was newly married with extended family nearby, and my significant other needed to stay local. I knew that post-MBA career opportunities would be best coming from UCLA Anderson because the networks would be shifted to the West Coast, where I intended to live long term.

    If you could apply all over again, what would you do differently?

    I would have tried to apply to the top seven MBA programs inclusive of Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, just so I had the opportunity to know whether I would have been accepted.

    Also, I would have tried to negotiate scholarship from UCLA Anderson; I did not know asking for scholarship was an option for me, but I now know through my MBA admissions work that it is quite possible, especially as I could have leveraged the full-ride scholarship offer I did receive (and declined) from USC Marshall.

    I had multiple blindspots in the MBA admissions process that I could have resolved through hiring a consultant or searching for the information.

    Does it matter where people get their MBA?

    Yes, the brand of the degree usually predicts the type of student peer group, recruiting opportunities, and overall return on the investment, inclusive of salary potential and MBA networks.

    At the same time, this absolutely varies by MBA student. The MBA's worth depends on the candidate's professional profile, career aspirations, and what [they do] once at the program. Fit with and performance at the program are essential.

    What's most important when selecting an MBA program? Program prestige, location, cost, something else?

    Brand/reputation is the most important, followed closely by location preferences. MBA brand predicts rigor of student peer group, enhanced legitimacy of the degree, and long-term professional networks. Brand and reputation can change over time, often driven by year-on-year patterns of ranking by the major institutions, such as US News.

    MBA applicants tend to underestimate the value of location, which often predicts regional recruiting, because applicants tend to instead hyperfocus on brand. Both location and brand are important.

    We have scrutinized career placement data for all the top programs and always see a heavy skew toward the local regional area for employment recruiting. Post-MBA career preferences should drive MBA program selection. For example, a professional who wants to work in the US should focus on US MBA programs. Likewise, an applicant interested in the EU for post-MBA work should look into INSEAD and LBS.

    What were ways that your MBA program was more or less rigorous than you expected?

    I remember feeling overwhelmed by the analytical expectations because my pre-MBA career path wasn't numbers-driven or traditional (not finance or consulting). I felt that so many of my MBA student peers had already been exposed to number-heavy business frameworks and case studies before arriving at the business program.

    I did enroll in a basic Excel and math workshop at UCLA Anderson just before I started the program, but I don't think those mini workshops were enough to give me a comfort level with some of the case studies and class discussions within the MBA program. I wish I had been exposed to more of that in my professional years beforehand or that I took a more robust 'Math for Management' course before the MBA degree.

    Much of the MBA experience is team-driven though, so I relied heavily on my peers to compensate for my gaps. I think I would have learned even more if I hadn't dodged the topics and areas that were hard for me to grasp!

    Frequently Asked Questions

    true Does It Matter Where You Get Your Online MBA?

    Prospective students should choose online programs from accredited business schools that meet their specialization, budget, and schedule needs.

    true Does Undergrad Prestige Matter for an MBA?

    Your undergraduate program's prestige can matter when applying to the top MBA programs, while other schools care more about work experience. Regardless of your undergraduate alma mater, you can find an MBA that fits your needs.

    true Does Undergrad Prestige Matter for an MBA?

    Your undergraduate program's prestige can matter when applying to the top MBA programs, while other schools care more about work experience. Regardless of your undergraduate alma mater, you can find an MBA that fits your needs.

    true Is It Worth Getting an MBA From a Lower-Tier School?

    A lower-tier school might make sense if it offers a unique specialization, has a strong network in your local business community or target industry, or offers a more affordable route to the degree that you want.

    Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

    Header Image Credit: PeopleImages | Getty Images

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