A Master Plan

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My Midwest Inflight Magazine
By Catherine Arnold

If you have big plans in business, it’s likely that you’ve thought about earning a Master of Business Administration.

Considering that the average cost of MBA tuition is about $30,000 a year—$41,900 a year at top-ranked Harvard Business School—not including fees, living expenses and loss of income, it’s not a decision most take lightly.

There are many reasons to get an MBA, and it seems that people are continuing to do so. In 2006, about 43,000 people earned MBAs, nearly twice the amount in 1991. So, why get one?

For Corinn Rocker, earning an MBA gave her the skills she needed to start her own business, Mommiesdish.com, a social network for mothers and moms-to-be in the Philadelphia area that hosts restaurant outings, a speaker series and many other social gatherings for new parents.

“There has not been anything I could not handle in starting my own business because of my experience in business school and contacts [I made] through the program,” says Rocker, who earned an MBA from St. Joseph’s University.

For Rocker, the MBA program gave her strong experience in business case studies, accounting, human resources, the legal technicalities of founding a business and many other issues.

“Because of my class experience, I already knew what was required to create a business, and I have a great network of former classmates who provide useful feedback,” Rocker says.

While Rocker’s experience is a positive one, there are many business-minded people— investment bankers, for example— for whom work experience and making money is more important than getting a secondary degree.

“If you want to make the most money in the shortest period of time, you can’t be away from work for two years,” says Vitaly Dukhon in a recent article for the The New York Times. Currently working at a hedge fund in New York, Dukhon always thought he would go to business school, since it was a way to get a foot in the door at a company. “But if you’re already there,” he says, “it doesn’t make sense to go.”

An MBA does make sense, however, for those looking for a career change. Rocker, for one, was a regional sales manager for an educational publisher before attending business school. Most MBA programs teach a well-rounded curriculum that provides important skills and tools necessary to start a new career or business venture.

Tracy L. Coenen, who earned an MBA from Marquette University, emphasizes that her degree added credibility, particularly when she founded her own fraud investigation accounting business, Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in criminology and a minor in business, Coenen found that the business minor “meant nothing” to most employers, and she has no doubt that the MBA helped.

“It made me more qualified in the business world and deepened my learning,” she says. “When I started my business, I was a bit younger than some of my peers, so adding the MBA behind my name added to my credibility.

It’s a costly program, but it’s worth it. I’m a big proponent of higher education, so I don’t regret getting an MBA in any way.”

But some professionals feel the MBA degree is over-emphasized and unnecessary. In March 2000, marketer and best-selling author Seth Godin, who has an MBA from Stanford, wrote an article in Fast Company magazine that satirically proposed opening the “New Order Business School.”

In the article, Godin says that most business school courses do not focus on selling, hiring or any other skills considered important in today’s job market.

“Before you decide that a fancy MBA is the one thing standing between you and success, you ought to think really hard about why you’re going and what you’re going to learn,” Godin says.

Since the article, Godin has received thousands of letters from people who agree with him— or in his words, “who have either wasted their time in the MBA rut or were smart enough to skip it.”

Jason Bohle, who earned his MBA in 2004 from Harvard Business School, is of the belief that the overall training he received in business school was extremely beneficial.

“I was exposed to so many things: marketing, sales, accounting, entrepreneurship, taxes, legal issues, government issues and other tools,” he says.

Bohle had previously worked as an investment banker with a real estate concentration. He decided to pursue the higher degree “because I knew there was a whole world out there that I had never seen; part of my goal in getting an MBA was to know more about that world.”

Bohle used his two summer internships to explore Los Angeles entertainment companies. He’d always enjoyed the creative side of the movie industry, but didn’t want to start out in a business that would require 100-hour work weeks with low pay. Ultimately, Bohle realized that real estate development offered the creative process that he craved.

“In Hollywood, I liked the process of taking an idea and making it real,” he says. “Taking a piece of land in real estate and being the person who’s making the project happen gives me the experience of making something.” And he believes his MBA has helped him do this.

For the younger bankers and investors who find themselves excelling in their current positions, getting an MBA might not be the way to go anymore. Given the growing number of million—even billion— dollar success stories of today’s twentysomethings, young people are reevaluating what they need to succeed.

According to the aforementioned New York Times article, one such man is Gabriel Hammond, who joined Goldman Sachs upon graduating from college. In the past, it was common practice to apply to business school after three years in the work force, but Hammond observed that very few of his peers—all of whom were on the fast track to success—opted not to. (Instead, Hammond raised $5 million and started his own hedge fund.)

For people like Hammond, the cost of business school was not worth missing out on two years gaining real work experience—and the salary that comes with it.

In the end, whether or not to get an MBA is a personal decision. It’s a matter of checking the actual and personal ROI involved: looking at the high costs, hard work and time away from the working world, then deciding whether the learning involved—and the contacts you’ll make—will be valuable enough to make the leap.

Godin’s article argues there are three reasons to attend: the school’s name recognition, networking and learning. But ultimately, he thinks that most business school classes aren’t relevant to today’s work climate. The shining stars in today’s business world agree with Godin. They are realizing that it doesn’t take an MBA to succeed and make money anymore.

But that’s not to say business school isn’t right for a certain type of person. Many still find business school useful, especially those who are looking for a career change or to start their own business. And for people who aren’t quite sure in which direction to go, an MBA can give them some kind of path.

So to MBA or not to MBA? The decision is yours.

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