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Beyond The MBA Rankings: Why Mid-Tier US Business Schools May Be A Better Option

US MBA students are looking beyond big brand name business schools for longer-term career gain

Wed Jun 7 2017


Part one of Barbara Coward's 'Beyond The MBA Rankings.' Read part two.

By Barbara Coward

After four years of service in the US Marine Corps, Nicholas Alberino was an operations analyst at Credit Suisse, one of the top ten most prestigious banks, in the famed Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, NC.

Nicholas was known as an expert in commercial mortgage-backed securities and colleagues saw him as smart, ambitious and hardworking. However, Nicholas was not happy.

He knew deep down that the financial services sector wasn’t for him. He tried applying for jobs in different industries, but encountered roadblock after roadblock.

“It was difficult to get an interview without relevant industry experience, and if I did get an interview, I would always have to answer the question: ‘Why are you switching?’ It occurred to me that if I were to obtain my MBA, my previous experience would not have as much weight, especially if I added a relevant summer internship to my resume.”

It’s precisely at this moment of realization that many professionals like Nicholas discover exactly what they want to do. It’s just not that easy to figure out where to do it.

In Nicholas’s case, you might expect someone working at a top ten bank to apply to a top ten business school. However, he chose the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University, ranked #52 in U.S. News and World Report and #35 in Bloomberg Businessweek.

With this choice, the 2018 MBA candidate busted a common business school myth. “Many prospective students have a belief that if they don’t receive an MBA from a top program, it may not be worth it to go at all,” said Alberino.


Branding Vs Program

“It’s hard to ignore the allure of the top programs and the career doors that those names may open more easily,” admits Jon Kaplan, assistant dean of full-time MBA programs at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine.

“Brand is a very powerful thing, and many of the top programs have had 100+ years to build those brands and the networks associated with them.”

At the same time, Kaplan cautions prospective students to take a measured approach to the school selection process, much like car shopping.

“All cars get you there at the same time, and there are some shoppers who typically will choose ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ For them, driving that luxury vehicle turns heads the same way that a resume with a top program may turn heads. But we all know that with some research, we may find other cars much more suited to our needs. And while that car of choice may not be as sexy, its ability to carry more cargo or be more affordable is the far greater value.

"It’s no different when choosing an MBA program. Sure, that diploma from a top school may turn heads and get you a great starting salary, but studies have shown that salaries of graduates from some mid-tier programs can grow faster and higher than top programs over a twenty-year span.”


Georgette Chapman Phillips, who was previously at Wharton for nearly twenty five years before her current role as dean of the College of Business and Economics at Lehigh University in Philadelphia, says that’s important to distinguish the product vs the brand in the decision process.

“Are you interested in the program or the school? I might want to buy a sleek, beautiful Jaguar, but maybe it’s not about the car. It’s about prestige. If what you want is prestige, then you are going to be unhappy at a mid-tier school.”

Phillips counsels prospective students who are considering going back to their MBA to think about their personal goals.

“What is your end game? Do you want to advance? Polish your credentials? Change careers? If you want to polish your resume, you may be willing to limit your search to an elite program.

If you really want to move up where you are, you can save money and/or time and go to a mid-tier program. There’s no one size fits all.

Going to Harvard might be the right answer for a lot of people but might not be the right answer for everyone.”

Current students note that the value of the MBA over an extended period should also be considered in the decision-making process.

“Initially coming out of school, the name of the school will matter more,” said Justin White, a 2018 MBA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who recently secured a capital budgeting and finance internship at Kaiser Permanente. “But as time goes on, the name will matter less and less. More will be attributed to your experiences and actions."

Still, it’s hard to get around the fact that prospective students are inclined to be brand-aware and brand-conscious.


“This is a product of our society and the ever-present rankings of everything,” said John Delaney, dean of American University’s Kogod School of Business. “The situation leads to a concern by prospective students that the selection of an inferior brand will cause a bad outcome.”

A stronger brand offers some value that other schools may not have, added Delaney.

“Ultimately, however, students need to get the training, support, and guidance to prepare for a successful career. Some mid-tier schools, because of a specialization, smaller size, dedicated faculty, or location advantage may be able to provide very strong outcomes for certain students.

This is where it is critical for prospects to understand the factors to consider in assessing that match.”