September 23, 2019


“What year were you?” a Morgan Stanley colleague asked me years ago. “Huh? Year?” I replied. “What year at HBS?” H-B-what? “What year did you graduate from Harvard Business School?” Oh, I get it now. “I didn’t go to HBS,” I told him. “Actually, I don’t have an M.B.A.” After a long pause and scrunched-up face, he asked, “Well, then how the hell did you get a job here?” As I walked away, I murmured under my breath, “Maybe I earned it.”

So should you get a master’s in business administration? These days a lot of people are rethinking that question. Applications are down, even at HBS and GSB (that’s Stanford’s Graduate School of Business—get with the lingo). The number of GMAT test scores sent to two-year, full-time M.B.A. programs has plummeted since 2015. Last year 70% of two-year M.B.A. programs saw declining enrollment; in 2014 it was only one-third. Rats deserting a sinking ship? . . .

But—you knew this was coming—man oh man is it expensive. HBS tuition is now $73,440 a year. Total costs are estimated at $110,740 if you’re single and more than 150 grand if you’re married with two children. That excludes the cost of your MacBook, let alone forgone wages. You’d better get that Wall Street job.

I’ve dug into the curricula at dozens of M.B.A. programs, from Booth to Kellogg to Fuqua. They’re all more or less the same: The first year has introductory courses in finance, accounting, managerial skills—my eyes are getting droopy, too—along with modeling and organizational behavior, each no doubt chock full of case studies that are probably no longer relevant. And virtually every program now has a mandatory ethics class, which awkwardly suggests that students had no ethics coming in.

The second year is a supposedly deep dive into finance or marketing or strategic management. Finance majors learn how the stock market works and about private equity. Sadly, I’ve suffered many dinner party conversations with Wharton M.B.A.s telling me how famed professor Jeremy Siegel taught them secret investing tips: low multiple, dividends, blah blah. They were almost always wrong.

Any halfway-on-the-ball undergrad could construct a virtual M.B.A. himself by taking a finance course and some in marketing and psychology, plus any course that teaches how to use spreadsheets. Then get buzzword-compliant and, voilà, an M.B.A. in a box.

But the networking!

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