Are you too clever for Harvard Business School?

Douglas Board
You can use an offer without taking it up (Source: Getty)

Fighting it out with one or two other schools at the top of the MBA pyramid are Harvard and Stanford. Both offer two-year degrees costing a quarter of a million bucks plus lost earnings.

If you get a place at either, you are most likely in the top 4 per cent intellectually of your peers, with many other qualities as well ‒ imagination, courage and the persistence to strike out on your own, for example.

Putting oneself through the sweat and expense of applying can make sense. While there is no shortage (alas) of Donald Trumps, many senior executives struggle to believe in their own level of talent. Passing an intense, multi-faceted selection is a legitimate badge of pride.

But if you’ve got an offer from an elite school, why should you accept it? Let’s suppose for a few minutes that you are as smart and entrepreneurial as (for example) Harvard says you are. Accepting might be the right thing to do, but if the question seems like a no-brainer, you have been deceived.

Business schools do three things for their MBA graduates. First, they teach a body of knowledge which they really, really want you to believe contains secret sauce. But it can’t ‒ academically accredited research can’t be secret sauce. You could get a comparable body of knowledge much cheaper from any top 100 business school, possibly in a one-year programme.

Second, they give you the prestige of their brand. But with the offer, they’ve put that bit of value in your hands already. So why not put the offer on your CV, but buy smarter or be more creative than the average herd animal who takes up the place. Be smarter-than-Harvard: got the offer, did something else.

Third ‒ and this has been the catch up to now ‒ they admit you into the network benefits of their alumni: all the confidence-building and back-scratching benefits of those who have paid their dues already, or will do so in the future. Those benefits are powerful (although in the way this works, you may detect a fleeting resemblance to pyramid selling). For example, in the US, the proportion of top corporate leaders who have been to elite business schools keeps rising.

To crack all this open, two things needed to happen. The first was social media. Now any entrepreneur can set up a social club of individuals with verified offers from Harvard Business School which they chose not to take up ( Imagine what a smart and interesting network that would be, and so much cheaper than paying for views of the Charles River.

The other was peak elite. A good date for that in Britain may turn out to have been May 2015, when George Osborne (St Paul’s, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club) became first secretary of state as well as chancellor of the exchequer. Because since then, a gale of change has been intensifying across the western world, and not just in politics. Surprisingly quickly, shiny credentials may turn passé.

No business believes any longer in “business as usual”, so to put one’s faith in “business school as usual” could be perverse. The schools themselves warn students about “group think”, and show them how a revered brand like Arthur Andersen, once an elite touchstone, can vanish without trace. When revolution is in the air, spending a quarter of a million dollars on a debenture seat among the ruling class might be a tad unwise.

Besides, a world whose only answer to “what’s smarter than Harvard?” is Stanford has spent too long staring at its own bottom.

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