So you are thinking of returning to school to get your MBA. You google “MBA Rankings” and start looking for a top-ranked school in a good location at an affordable price. The rankings are a good place to start. Programs that score high deliver on their promises to students (and employers) and help graduates achieve their career goals. But realize that different programs make different promises to students. They attract different people hoping to get different things out of their MBA experience.
Most obvious is the difference between full-time and part-time programs. Part-time, or working professional programs as they are sometimes called, appeal to students that have great demands on their time and are looking for an efficient vehicle for gaining the credentials they need to move up in their current firm, change jobs or start a new career. These students tend to favor practitioner-oriented programs that play to their work experience and stress immediate relevancy over the development of a deeper perspective based on a rigorous conceptual approach. Some of these students will choose an on-line option because they are drawn to the combination of convenience and efficiency offered by such programs. In contrast, full-time students are making a much bigger commitment of time and lost wages and are typically looking for a more immersive experience that will up-grade their conceptual abilities and produce results over a longer time horizon.
You can see these differences in the rankings. The top of BusinessWeek’s full-time program rankings is a list of elite schools presented largely in the order you would expect. Academic prowess and reputation rank supreme. The part-time rankings, on the other hand, offer several surprises. The number one program, Elon has students with very average GMAT scores and almost ten years of work experience taught in very small sections. Number three, Carnegie Mellon has students with half the work experience of Elon, who are taught largely by non-tenure track faculty (i.e. practitioners) in much larger class sizes.
But other differences matter too. MBA programs don’t have a commonly-defined set of pre-requisite experiences, required undergraduate majors, or selection criteria. The general applicability of the degree (MBAs are employed everywhere) attracts a broad range of students with a wide range of interests, talents, and aspirations. Some MBA students hope to start their own business or work for a small firm. They are likely to be drawn to more generalist programs, that stress entrepreneurship, strategy and a comprehensive view of business. Other prospective MBAs are looking to move up in the corporate world. They tend to have strong technical skills in engineering, finance, or the sciences and are looking to augment those talents with managerial skills. Still others want to change careers. They may be liberal arts majors with creativity and strong communication skills who have never taken a business course in their lives and are looking to improve their data-driven decision-making abilities in one or more functional areas of business.
And then there is the fifth year business school “senior” who simply can’t leave the fraternity house and thinks an MBA might be the best way to stick around for another year or two. Unless you too want to join the unambitious, run from programs who admit these students. If you are a fifth year senior go get five years of experience before enrolling in an MBA program. If you won’t listen to that advice, at least go to a different institution from the one where you got your undergraduate degree. Otherwise, you are likely to hear many of the same professors share the same insights with you that they did when you were an undergraduate. It’s not like they were keeping secrets from you until you became a graduate student under the belief that “you couldn’t handle the truth.” Yes, they will offer you material in a more sophisticated manner, but the difference is rarely enough to justify you going to that same institution immediately upon graduation.
The bottom line is this: Your MBA experience will be heavily influenced by the students around you. Be wary of programs that claim they can be all things to all people. Diversity in students’ industry backgrounds, types of work experience and cultural perspective are big plusses. Diversity in student expectations about program goals, approaches, and outcomes tends to breed dissatisfaction and dissent. Look for a program that has a strong sense of itself, the type of student it wants to attract, and what it is trying to accomplish. Take the time to dig deep and ensure you are joining a program that draws the kinds of people you want to be around and compete with both today in class and tomorrow in the business world.
Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. This post appeared on February 13, 2013. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.