Should MBA prestige be a priority?

Students from the renowned Harvard Business School have the highest earning potential
Established schools may provide useful networks

AN MBA can increase your earnings power considerably and land you an enviable position in a competitive industry. But with more and more institutions offering the degree, and with the rising popularity of the CFA within the finance industry, it is no longer considered a golden ticket. As MBA graduates seek to distinguish themselves from an increasing number of peers, should the prestige of an elite MBA, instantly recognisable to employers, be top priority? Or should other criteria take precedence?

In the US, prestige certainly gets you paid. There is a clear correlation between earning potential and institution rankings. Analysis by PayScale for Poets&Quants suggests that, over a 20 year period, MBA holders from the top-ranking schools have the highest median incomes, with graduates from Harvard and Stanford boasting the biggest pay packets.

Raquel Lison of Oxford’s Saïd Business School doesn’t deny that many applicants are attracted to Oxford’s brand, but says that candidates have their own reasons for applying. “We tend to attract ambitious students, with an impressive array of academic achievements and work experience. It is unsurprising that they are attracted to a prestigious school”.

It is not difficult to see Lison’s reasoning. Brand-name institutions are gateways to brand-name companies. For years, McKinsey, Shell and Credit Suisse have visited Saïd to present their organisations, and chair panel discussions, in an effort to meet prospective recruits they know will be interested in working for them.

Prestige will often follow from high teaching quality, but how should it be judged against other criteria on an applicant’s shopping list? Marco Mongiello of Imperial College Business School says that his school’s applicants are attracted by Imperial’s wider reputation as a centre for technological innovation. “Our MBA course encourages a fusion between technology and business. This is evident in our elective on clean technology investment, which draws upon recycling and energy expertise from other departments”.

“Class size, for example, is less important than a school’s brand,” says Mongiello. The top schools tend to have larger class sizes, which become larger alumni networks of ambitious, like-minded individuals offering more expertise when you graduate. This may, for example, make it easier to find funding or business partners among your fellow classmates if you’re taking an MBA to start your own company.

Gareth Howells, executive director of the MBA and masters in finance at London Business School, insists that such networks are a “crucial” factor when choosing an school. “You should think about whether you’ll be among people who want to do similar things to you. Does the school have the connections with the employers and sectors you wish to access after the MBA?”

Prestige is a general perception which is difficult to quantify or compare, says Jane Davies, incoming director of the MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School. “It is built up over time by a combination of many factors – the quality of teaching, quality of the student group, achievements of the alumni network.” Davies believes that employment data is the real key to choosing a school. “You should ask what percentage of grads are employed three months out, in which sectors or countries, and are students able to make the career transitions they want?”

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