Regarding the brand value of leading MBA programs worldwide, no less a source than the Economist claims that, “it’s not having an MBA but where you get it that counts.”
Strong words – they base their conclusion largely on company recruiters’ awareness of top brands and the consequent number of offers, and salary levels, that graduates of such brand-name programs may enjoy.
The belief that only top-brand MBA programs are worth taking may be valid if you are working in a more mature economy or entirely focused on working for MNCs. For those in China considering an MBA program, other factors are well worth considering.
Make or break
First, a good MBA education (which you can get at many schools) has value far beyond what salary you may get when you’re hired at Goldman or BT. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur, or going to become one, the education can make the difference between success and failure.
Second, in a market such as China’s, where qualified early-career managers are at a premium and the market highly dynamic, having the MBA on your CV is more of a differentiator than whether it’s from a top 20 school versus one merely in the top 100, and neither type will save you if you’re fundamentally wrong for the job.
Having said that, the degree is a recent phenomenon in China – people here have been going overseas to earn MBAs for less than three decades. So because many here don’t yet understand the specific, nuanced value of MBA education, they default to valuing the degree based on the brands they know.
One still sees in China, people with business cards sporting a B-school logo and proclaiming the bearer to have an MBA, in the same way that one used to see people here wearing clothes with the labels proudly displayed on the outside.
These are new-market phenomena, but one should not discount the relative marketplace ignorance in China regarding an MBA education.
Are rankings rank?
Refereed sports share at least one peculiarity: star players are hauled up less often than rookies for borderline play, showing that the “brand” those stars enjoy influences performance evaluation.
One sees the same phenomenon in B-school rankings: schools with historically strong brands get extra credit. Therefore, rankings are notoriously trailing indicators even without weighting for past performance, but 45% of BusinessWeek’s rankings are based on previous scores, and the FT weights BusinessWeek in their own. Finally, rankings are conducted by for-profit institutions, putting marketing in competition with disinterested analysis – a battle marketing usually wins.
My conclusion: rankings and brand mean something to the marketplace, so they should mean something to you. But you’ll do yourself a great favor if you look beyond these simplistic “beauty-contest” indicators and gain an understanding of how a particular program might fit your own career goals.
One benefit of some rankings: they parse for such factors as international relevance, overseas alumni and industry-specific strengths – unusually important to someone from China considering a Western program.
One of the reasons MBA enrollment in China fell off dramatically following the peak year of 2002 is that too many people were taking programs without understanding the specific, individual potential gain. The market realized that the degree, by itself, is not a cure-all for troubled or stagnant careers.
You can avoid a waste of your time and money by carefully assessing the likely returns of overseas MBA study for your own specific case. Think carefully about how the education (not just the brand) can support your specific career goals.
Choosing a program
Once you’ve made the decision to earn the degree, you must decide on which program. Part of the decision is geographic – by which I do not mean thinking, “I want to study in a place with beaches and hotties.” The European approach to MBA education is somewhat different from the North American.
Other key components of your decision should be program focus, type of alumni, type and strength of corporate relationships. Spend time understanding these key elements of a school’s value proposition, and find the program or school that best aligns with your own goals.
Finally, don’t forget that your work doesn’t end with selection – it’s just begun. You’ll capture the full value of your investment only if you actually study.