From measurable insights such as financial gains and job satisfaction to creating a virtual Swiss Army knife for your career, the benefits can far outweigh the costs.
By Jim Ver Steeg
As debate over the value of higher education continues, some critics have taken specific aim at graduate business programs and questioned what they offer in terms of professional growth and career development. While some look to free online learning as a business school alternative, graduation and success rates offer a less rosy view. Still, new technology continues to shape business education. For Simon, it means the digital age has come knocking and a new generation of students is discovering the power behind the School’s analytic approach.
It is a powerful investment to transform your career.
David Tilson is the associate dean of Simon Business School’s full-time MBA program. Like many current business school students, he first pursued his MBA to advance his career. “I had an engineering background,” he says. “I think I was a good engineer and project manager, but I needed an MBA to round out my education and deepen my knowledge of accounting, finance, marketing, and logistics.” According to Tilson, his business education provided an even broader impact. “Getting my MBA allowed me to participate intelligently in many more conversations and at a higher level than I could have with just my engineering skills,” he says.
Inspired by what he learned from his MBA, Tilson continued his education, and in 2008, received his PhD from Case Western Reserve University. Along with a successful career in telecommunications, high tech, and media consulting, he also won a Royal Television Society award, similar to an American Emmy, for broadcast technology. He says he recognizes the same sort of intellectual development at Simon that he experienced as an MBA student. “I notice a difference in students from the first day they get here until graduation,” Tilson notes. “There’s a real maturity in their thinking and approach to business. They have developed the ability to bring rigorous analysis to bear when faced with difficult problems, which is essential. Five or ten years ago, you could get away with just an intuitive answer to business problems—because the data just wasn’t there. That’s not the case anymore. Today there is more and more data coming from every direction in business.”
Simon Business School Dean Andrew Ainslie experienced a similar career trajectory. “When I think back on my own career,” he says, “I was more narrowly focused on marketing. But after earning my MBA, I began to take on broader projects, managed bigger groups of people, and really enjoyed a career that was far richer and more fulfilling than I had before.” Much like a “Swiss Army knife,” he notes, “an MBA enriches the level of interactions you can experience in your work. For me, it led back to graduate school and a PhD, then a 20-year career in teaching, and now a move back into management to run a business school. There’s absolutely no way I could have done any of those without first getting my MBA.”
A February 2015 study conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) shows Ainslie is not alone. GMAC surveyed more than 12,000 business school alumni worldwide and found the majority of respondents credit their graduate business education with preparing them for leadership positions, accelerating the pace of their career advancement, and providing higher levels of job satisfaction. With those results, it is not surprising that 96 percent of full-time, two-year MBA alumni surveyed rank the value of their business education good or outstanding.
Ainslie also recognizes the wider economic influence of business schools and the professionals they help produce. “The ‘sky is falling’ warnings about MBAs have been out there almost as long as there have been universities,” he says. “After the ’87 crash, people blamed the MBAs, claiming they were bad for the industry. In reality, after that crash, the financial world became much richer and the economic renewal and restoration came largely from business schools. Without business schools, we would arguably be in a much different situation.” Ainslie says pointing to the presumed demise of the MBA often alludes to the rising cost associated with earning the degree. “It’s true,” he says. “The cost of an MBA has risen quite a lot over the years, but what some journalists and other critics miss is the extraordinary value of the degree. Five years after a student receives an MBA, he or she earns an average salary nearly eighty percent higher than before going to business school.”
Ronald Yeaple ’65S (MBA), ’86 (PhD), former Simon professor and author of The MBA Advantage and Does It Pay to Get an MBA, agrees. “When you’re considering the economic and financial value of getting an MBA,” Yeaple says, “there are three numbers to be concerned about: how much you’re making before your MBA, how much you will make a year after you graduate, and how much you are going to make five years post-MBA.” His own research, which includes data from a comprehensive study of alumni from America’s top business schools, indicates that post-MBA starting pay goes up 50 percent over pre-MBA for full-time students. After five years, that number leaps to an increase of 80 percent.
According to Yeaple, a close look at potential earnings is particularly important when prospective students crunch the numbers to determine how long it will take to pay back the opportunity costs associated with two years of full-time MBA study. A 2013 Forbes study indicates full-time MBA study at Simon is well within reach for most qualified candidates, who typically see a full return on investment in fewer than four years.
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Success in business means networking in the real world.
Recent media reports have highlighted what is referred to as the “uncollege” movement—or the “hackademics” model—that is popular among some aspiring college undergraduates and graduate students. In an effort to discover and develop less expensive alternatives to traditional higher education, these almost exclusively online initiatives are built on the premise that you can learn everything you need to know through a combination of work experience and online education, such as free massive open online courses (MOOCs). While the alternative to a formal business education may be well suited for some, Ainslie believes online learning falls significantly short of its promises. “I’m skeptical of how useful MOOCs are for anyone interested in improving their skill-set,” he says. “Statistics show that many MOOC participants get halfway through the first lesson, or maybe even to the second video, and then just give up.”
Dean Ainslie’s skepticism seems to be warranted. After the launch of a much-hailed partnership between California’s San José State University and leading MOOC provider Udacity, the program was abruptly “paused” when data revealed a disappointing 51 percent of the enrolled online students passed their courses. Those relatively poor results are probably not a surprise for someone like Simon alum Elizabeth Schirmer ’10S (MBA), vice president of business development at Sweetwater Energy. Shirmer says the business school experience has always been about more than just reading case studies and getting passing grades. “It’s about the personal interaction and support of Simon’s world-class faculty,” she notes. “One of the benefits of Simon is its smaller size, which helps you connect with professors and classmates. The connections you make with other students become solid business relationships around the world.”
Those real world, in-person connections, arguably less available in online learning, have been critical elements to Schirmer’s entrepreneurial interests. Untapped Shores, a not-for-profit organization she founded with her fiancé, provides water filtration and hydroponic farming technologies to women and children in developing countries, and is already making a difference. “We perfected our business model using our MBA skills,” she says. “After we thought of using travelers who were already planning to go on vacations, honeymoons, or business trips to deliver these life-changing technologies, we enlisted Simon support,” she says. “Faculty members offered free advice and resources through their own contacts, and so many of the sites we deploy to today have been the work of Simon students and alumni.”
Christopher Czarnecki ’09S (MBA), president and chief financial officer at Broadstone Real Estate, says the connections he made at Simon help him tackle some of his industry’s toughest problems, including finding solutions with less-than-perfect information. “A network of professionals can help you work through information gaps,” he says. “I’ve learned to draw on the people I got to know at Simon to help piece together different perspectives and solutions.” He also observes that his Simon experience continues to work in some of his most important business settings. “Simon graduates operate with a common currency,” he says. “That currency is a form of validation. When I’m meeting people in different markets in Chicago or New York, they’ll often look at my background and bring up the fact that I have an MBA. There is an acceptance level—or an appreciation of your skillset—that you enjoy from having that in your background.”
Expert instruction gives you confidence in any business setting.
For Diana Nole ’01S (MBA), president of the medical digital group within Carestream Health, it was about learning the language of the boardroom. “My MBA from Simon gave me the confidence to be in the discussion,” she says. “Even with professional experience, I didn’t know all the terms people might use in general business discussions—especially those that were happening two or three levels above me at the time. Being able to confidently ask the right questions and using the right terminology regarding things like cash flow statements and balance sheets came with the skills to analyze important data. I think my reputation and credibility improved as a result of getting my MBA.”
The practical and data analysis skills Nole learned had such an impact on her career that she regularly sees the value in hiring MBA talent. “Whenever a résumé comes across my desk that tells me the person went to Simon Business School, he or she has a little higher credibility with me,” she says. “I know what it takes to get through that, and that’s why we have hired a number of people from Simon and put them through great programs here at Carestream. Their degree and the business foundation it provides has helped connect them with terrific opportunities here.”
Nole credits the Simon curriculum with providing its graduates with the necessary toolkit for understanding the marketplace and how organizations in any industry stack up next to the competition. According to Ainslie, it is a result of the School’s unique economics-based approach, which focuses on data analysis. “We all know the field of finance is where data analytics started,” he says. “But now we are seeing more industries rely on Big Data, particularly in industries such as marketing. It started in the late 90s, and has really exploded in the last fifteen years to the point where we find companies almost begging for more people who can analyze and offer a business perspective on large data sets.”
Still, tomorrow’s business talent will need to do more than just crunch numbers. “Employers will need well-rounded candidates who really understand the big picture,” Ainslie says. “That’s why we work on our students’ communication and teamwork skills. We help them develop the attributes that are going to make them great leaders in the future, not just someone who can understand only the nuts and bolts of data itself.”
Your own value increases with an MBA.
While your debt may last only a few years, the skills you develop with an MBA are designed to last a lifetime. That is especially true in a global marketplace that increasingly relies on huge amounts of information to drive decisions. Karen Dowd, assistant dean for career management and corporate engagement at the Simon Business School, says she sees a distinct advantage for the MBA talent she places. “We’re so fortunate at Simon,” she says. “Data analysis has been our sweet spot for years.” According to Dowd, it’s a focus of an increasing number of business lines. “It seems like all of a sudden the rest of the world is waking up to the importance of a data-analysis skillset,” she notes. “Marketing has discovered it, operations has discovered it, and technology has discovered it. I honestly don’t talk to an employer these days who doesn’t mention the need for qualified talent with those skills.”
One of the greatest strengths of an MBA is the way it provides students with decision-making frameworks that can be applied in almost any business setting. “I’ve been in this industry for a number of years, and I’ve seen a number of cycles,” Dowd says. “Regardless of what industry is the popular flavor of the month—it might be health care, it might be real estate, it might be dot com, it might be technology—it doesn’t matter. What matters is whatever industry is growing at a particular time, that’s the industry that is going to need the MBA degree.”
Christopher Czarnecki points out that even when you stay in the same industry, data-analysis skills and the way you apply them often evolve over time. “When you first graduate from Simon, you’re probably going to do more hands-on data crunching and analysis,” he says. “Later, as you go through your career, it’s even more important to be able to look at someone else’s work from a data perspective and assess if it makes sense and is logical.” As the CFO for a real estate company with $1 billion in assets in 31 different states, Czarnecki is responsible for a wide range of financial forecasting with regular reporting back to the company’s stakeholders and executive team. “I think the key difference in a Simon education is the ability to look at a broad range of data and understand the very specific consequences it might have,” he says. “It’s about using that information to drive decisions and present them in a clear manner.”
While Czarnecki has primarily stayed in the industry he loves—real estate—others have used the skills they learned from their MBA to navigate career changes in today’s rapidly changing business landscape. Former Citibank executive and independent consultant Sanjay Vatsa ’89S (MBA) argues that an MBA provides individuals with the professional skills to be valuable in a variety of professional settings. “It prepares you for the unexpected,” he says. “What’s going to happen over the next four years will be revolutionary. Digitalization, modernization, and collaboration to compete will be very important aspects going forward. Your undergraduate degree doesn’t prepare you for that. The MBA gives you much broader capabilities to understand and deal with new situations and helps you reinvent and innovate yourself.”
In Elizabeth Schirmer’s case, innovation comes through applying her MBA skills to both her career and her entrepreneurial efforts to make a difference. “Simon helped prepare me for both Sweetwater and Untapped Shores,” she says. “One of the best things I learned at Simon is that you can run a not-for-profit like a for-profit business. Not-for-profit just means that you don’t exist to make a profit, but if you make money, that’s not a bad thing. You’re reinvesting the revenues back into an organization to help the people who need it most.”
The best schools combine research and real-world experience.
Successful business schools must also reinvest in themselves, both financially and in terms of intellectual capital. While much of that reinvestment comes in the form of bringing expert faculty and the brightest minds in business to campus, schools like Simon recognize the value of bringing the campus to the marketplace. “We’re very excited to introduce the concept of City Treks to Simon Business School,” says Assistant Dean Dowd. “It is fairly common for schools to bring groups of students to certain industry centers to give them exposure to different companies and corporate environments. We increase the impact of those visits tenfold by bringing faculty with us.”
Most recently, Simon’s City Trek brought students, faculty, and staff to Silicon Valley for a roundtable discussion with leaders from some of the country’s top technology firms. They called the trip “Tech Trek.” Led by Dean Ainslie, the Tech Trek provided an important opportunity for dialogue between business and academia. “I think each of us learns from the other,” Ainslie says. “We get to talk with industry leaders about directions we’re seeing in terms of how people are thinking of data analytics. But what was really great for us was to listen to what those industry leaders are looking for in graduates of our MBA program.”
David Tilson was one of the Simon faculty members on the Tech Trek. “We visited Amazon, Oracle, Facebook, and several others,” he says. “Again and again, we saw the great value our MBA students can bring to that industry. As many of them have technology backgrounds, their MBA experience at Simon gives them a very deep context in business, data analysis, and operations.”
Dowd also sees great value in how the City Treks can use outside experiences to enhance student learning. “The faculty are able to gain real-world examples of what they’re teaching in the classroom,” she says. “After our meetings in Silicon Valley, they can go back and say, ‘Based on my experience visiting Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, or Oracle, this is how a senior leader is making decisions.’” Dowd notes that information is especially important in the tech industry, where change seems to happen very quickly. “They used to say engineering knowledge changed every eighteen months,” she says. “In our visits, we heard loud and clear that now it’s more like six to nine months.”
Not every business school or MBA program is equipped to meet rapidly changing industry needs. “There’s a huge debate right now about the value of an MBA and the value of different schools,” Dowd says. “Simon prides itself on a rigorous program, and I believe that in itself drives a different kind of person to our School. Simon is not the party school. It’s the hard work school. It’s the quantitative and analytical school. It’s the school run by globally esteemed faculty, especially in the areas of accounting, finance, and economics.”
Ainslie points out that it is the Simon faculty’s tradition of innovative research and classroom excellence that sets the Simon MBA program apart. “I would hate to see the day when business schools are simply producing a commoditized product,” he says. “But I think that can start happening. As you go from one school to another, the curriculum and the content begins to look identical. Why? Because there is no real added intellectual value. What the faculty is doing at those schools is picking up a textbook, sometimes reading it two weeks before they actually give the class, and simply reiterating what they read.”
Ainslie says there is no replacement when it comes to cutting-edge theory and academic innovation. “At the end of the day, intellectual property is the very cornerstone of any great school,” he says. “And intellectual property can build only by having active research faculty. At Simon, we are creating new intellectual property that will end up in classrooms in the future. Wouldn’t you rather be at a school like that than one where people are simply reading you the textbook and regurgitating it a few weeks later?”
Still, Ainslie argues, the research mission of a top business school cannot be its only focus. There is also a student experience component that helps drive the value of an MBA. “We shouldn’t be so focused on the research mission that we forget one of our primary aims is to ensure that we do a great job of teaching,” he says. “We need to be sure we take that great content and deliver it in a way that gets students to build insights they wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s the balancing act between great research and great teaching—and that’s exactly what we are always striving to do at Simon.”