In the last few weeks at least half a dozen threads have popped up on the MBA forums with different variations of the same theme. School X vs School Y. Having been in this predicament myself I find myself drawn to these threads. They are particularly interesting when School X is ranked higher than School Y, but School Y is offering money while School X is offering less or none. These threads inevitably come down to the "age old" question of rank vs. money.
"...And don't believe anyone who tells you it doesn't." A professor at a top 5 business school said this to me and a classroom full of prospective students during a mock class last fall. He told us that lower ranked schools would try to lure us with lucrative scholarships, but that we should not allow money to be the deciding factor in choosing a business school. "Go to the best school you can get into." That's what he was really telling us. I've seen that mantra repeated over and over again on many admissions consultants websites. I tend to agree with them. The second I decided that the MBA was the right route for me I knew I would only consider top 15 programs. If I couldn't get in then I just wouldn't do the MBA. Extreme? Maybe, but I knew that certain opportunities would only be open to me if I went to an "elite" school.
With that being said, I have noticed that even amongst the elite there are stratified tiers. Some say the zenith is HBS/Stanford/Wharton. However, others would say that the H/S/W tier really only exists for Wharton. HBS and Stanford view themselves in a league of their own. Then there's endless debate about whether Booth, Kellogg, and MIT make up their own cluster right under H/S/W or if B/K/Sloan/CBS/Tuck are all peers. There are some who say Wharton is its own tier and there are others who say B/K/W are interchangeable. Things get even murkier when determining which schools make up the Top 10*.
"Is Stern #10 or has Yale edged it out of that spot?"
"Why is Haas ranked so high?"
"Does Tuck belong in the M7?"
I have seen variations of all these debates and after a while it all becomes one big pissing contest. Is there a difference between the #15 school and the Top 5? Yes, I would say there are tangible differences. It shows in the educational and professional backgrounds of the students as well as in the caliber of companies that recruit. However, distinguishing who is #3 and who is #5 comes down to a matter of preference instead of clear advantages. Regardless, within the top 15 there is definitely a level of prestige and opportunity that you will not find in lower ranked schools.
Even with the jockeying for position within the top 15, there is a very clear consensus about which schools belong in it. So what happens when a person gets into Ross with a significant scholarship and Kellogg with little to nothing? While Kellogg is agreed to be the more prestigious program is that prestige worth $100K more in debt? The dirty little secret that a lot of schools at the top of the heap hate to acknowledge is that 80% of the time end game from school #4 is no different than the end game at school #14. If you are interested in the traditional MBA career paths, especially brand management and consulting you can just as easily get hired by P&G or Deloitte from Ross as you can from Kellogg. When schools also have similar cultures the money can be the great equalizer. I can understand taking the money, but I also understand leaving it.
The equation becomes even more convoluted within the top 5. I completely understand why Harvard is Harvard and Stanford is Stanford. It is difficult for any amount of money to pull an applicant away from either of these schools. However, I am not sure that either truly offers a vast array of immediate post MBA opportunities that are not available to Wharton or Kellogg grads. I will give the clear advantage to HBS for the network and the name. HBS alums are EVERYWHERE and no matter how long ago you graduated the Harvard branding sticks. But other than that I don't think a person who does choose the money at another top 5 school is losing anything else but debt. That's the conclusion I came to with Wharton. I will readily admit that the Wharton name has a slight edge over Booth and Kellogg. However, from a recruiting standpoint they are all the same. Wharton, Booth, and Kellogg (HBS and Stanny too) all send people to McKinsey, General Mills, Blackrock, and other top companies across all industries. Yes, Wharton is the most recognized name out of the three schools I chose between. However, recognizable does not necessarily mean better. Wharton's like old money while Booth is like new money. You don't need to know about Standard Oil Company to know that the name Rockefeller means money. And you might not know the name Brin, but that doesn't negate the fact that he's richer than any Rockefeller. Whether they've been one for over a century (Wharton) or they fell into the money this decade (Booth), a billionaire is a billionaire. Who cares if Joe Schmoe doesn't know about it? Some people do care. When we're talking $100K vs. $50K I damn sure do not.
"Your MBA is What You Make It..."
This is also very true. There are people who squandered opportunities at "elite" business schools and others who have opened their own doors from lower ranked schools. I have seen it happen with people that I know. However, I would not take isolated cases and extrapolate that school #40 is comparable to school #4.
Right after I was admitted to Kellogg an associate who I had not spoken
to in nearly a year called me. He tends to contact me a couple times a
year to put out job feelers at my company. When I told him that I was
admitted to Kellogg and would be leaving the company in a few months he
asked if I had applied to the school where he did his MBA (Top 30ish
program). When I told him that I wasn't planning to apply there he
asked me why. I responded that 1) I did not want to live in the
school's location and 2) I was already in at a much higher ranked
program that I far preferred. His replied, "Yeah, but why pay all that
money when you could go to (name of his school) for free. I did." I
found his suggestion ironic and laughable. He was suggesting that I NOT
go to a widely known top 5 business school in favor of his school yet
he was underemployed in a job most companies don't even recruit
undergrads to do and coming to me, not his school's network, for job
leads. Not exactly the most compelling example. Alas he isn't the only person I know who attended a 2nd or 3rd
tier MBA program for free who found themselves not only debt free but
job free (maybe job lite) as well. No matter how hard they tried to
break into new fields, the opportunities just were not present and you
can't spin straw into gold.
I am not saying that 2nd tier MBA programs set people up for
unemployment. But I do think that expectations should be greatly
tempered. Many of these schools' employment strengths are in a limited
geographic area with a handful of companies. Even when the "sexy"
companies do recruit from these schools they are often not recruiting
for the "sexy" jobs. Although you want to do strategy consulting,
investment banking, or marketing the opportunities may only be in
operations or support roles. I found this when I recruited with my
current employer out of undergrad. I was so sure I was going to be a
marketer and marketing for a major CPG company would be totally cool.
However, when I went to my company's booth at the career fair they told
me in no uncertain terms that they were only there to recruit for the
sales management program. Marketing had its own recruiting team and the
two did not overlap. The recruiters also put the kibosh on coming into
sales then moving over to marketing in a year or two. Just like kids
get tracked in elementary school, adults get tracked in the job market
and once you're hired for one track you're more likely to hit a half
court shot than to jump to a more prestigious track. Has it been done?
Sure it has, but it doesn't happen often. It's the exception, not the
rule. In the book "He's Just Not that Into You" the authors advise
women to not think of themselves as the exception. When a man doesn't
call, doesn't ask them out, doesn't commit it's because the guy is just not
that into them. That's the rule. Occasionally there are exceptions,
but it is better to live as though you are the rule to prevent undue
heartbreak. I think the same advice applies to business schools. Could
a 2nd Tier MBA get you to the same place that a top 15/20 school
would? On occasion, but generally speaking, probably not. If there is a
choice between the two then why not go for the option that offers the
most options and puts you in the best position to accomplish your goals?
I have seen some applicants cast a very wide net when applying to schools, even applying to safeties for their safeties. The dust settles and some of them have multiple offers from disparate schools. Yes, there are many really good schools outside of the top 10/15. And if it came down to a choice between Top 25 with money and bottom of the top 15 with no money then I can see the conundrum. However, not even a full ride plus stipend can make a top 50 school comparable to a top 15 or even 20. It just doesn't compute. To me, this is a clear case of "Go to the best school you can get into." The education pays for itself not just in terms of starting salaries but also in the caliber of classmates and ease of landing the job you couldn't get without the MBA.
"This or that..."
Ultimately I think it comes down to a person's priorities. Pedigree is great, but the massive debt that often accompanies it sucks big hairy moose balls. It scares the shiznit out of me. Within the top tier I think that there can be tradeoffs. Sometimes a extra smattering of sparkle dust isn't worth an additional $50K. However, to believe that the sparkle dust is never worth more would be foolish. The bigger the goals the more valuable it becomes. Basically it's a gamble on yourself and the strength of that school's MBA. Sure taking the money provides freedom, but freedom doesn't always equate to opportunity.
*The above questions are not necessarily my personal opinions but rather different questions I have heard raised in the debate over which school ranks where and why.