Understanding Your MBA Options – Part I

This is the time of year when many prospective MBAs start looking seriously at business school admissions for the first time.
Many of these "newbie" applicants have the same basic questions about their school and program choices. I’m going to use this month’s and next month’s columns to go over some of these issues.
Does the School Where I Get My MBA Really Matter?
It does. Your post-MBA career will be influenced by the network of alumni and faculty your school introduces you to, the corporate recruiters it helps you access, and the name of the school that appears on your degree.
There are a number of excellent reasons to consider getting your MBA from one of the top business schools:
1) You’ll have better internship and job prospects. The major corporations recruit management talent from HBS, Wharton, Stanford, and other top schools year in and year out. Even in years when MBA hiring is down, the major investment banks and consulting firms interview on these campuses.
2) You’ll have better salary prospects. Recruiters offer top b-school grads a sweeter deal than they extend to graduates of other programs. It’s a case of supply and demand. A lot of companies want management talent from a short list of top schools, and there are only so many such graduates to go around.
3) You’ll become part of the school’s alumni network. Top schools attract top students who go on to become top businesspeople. The people sitting next to you in class will become valued contacts who can help you when you need information, ideas, references, job leads, etc. 
4) You’ll get an excellent education. The same two dozen b-schools appear at the top of the rankings year after year because they belong there. They are respected throughout the business and academic communities for their curricula, faculty, research, and support services.
But even with all these advantages, a top b-school isn’t the best choice for everyone.
The benefits a top b-school offers may not be relevant to your situation. You don’t need a Harvard MBA, for example, to run a small to moderately sized family business.
Alternatively, you might decide that the career gains you would get from going to a top business school would not offset the personal and family costs of leaving your present employment and moving to another city for two years. That's a judgment only you can make.
Happily, a number of local colleges and universities offer good graduate management programs. One of those might be a better choice for you.
Should I Go to B-School Full Time or Part Time?
The answer to that question hinges on your job situation and your reasons for wanting to get an MBA.
If you’re happy with your present employer and want to get an MBA to move up in the same company, you might be well served by enrolling in a good-quality part time program. You can get your degree while you continue working and apply the concepts you learn to your job as you go along. Your employer may be willing to pay for part or all or your tuition.
Going to b-school part-time doesn't have to mean compromising on school choice. Stern, Haas, Chicago, and Kellogg are among the top-notch business schools that offer part-time study.
But if you want to get an MBA as part of a job or career change, you should enroll in a full-time program. You need to be a full-time student to participate in internships, and internships are a key factor in landing post-MBA employment – especially if you’re trying to change fields. You’ll benefit from the connections you make through your school’s alumni network, too.
The drawbacks to part time MBA programs are:
1) The lack of internships and alumni networks, as noted above.
2) Uneven class and program quality. Most (but not all) schools' part time MBA programs are easier to get into than their full time programs are. That difference often shows in the range of student abilities, focus, and dedication.
3) The conflict between work and school priorities. Going to graduate school part time is like having a part time job (a demanding part time job) on top of your ‘real’ employment. That’s a lot of stress to live with for three to four years. It may also mean that you sometimes won’t get what you should out of your classes because you have to focus your attention on work.
The drawbacks to committing to a full time MBA program are:
1) The amount of money you'll have to invest;
2) The amount of time you'll have to invest; and
3) The risk that your MBA investment won't pay off.
I haven’t met many people who weren’t stunned the first time they added up the full cost of attending b-school – meaning not just tuition, but living expenses, moving expenses, and lost income. Those expenses easily add up to $150,000 or more.
That investment usually does pay off handsomely in the form of enhanced career prospects and higher income after graduation. As with any investment, however, there is no iron-clad guarantee of a positive outcome. There was a time, just a few years ago, when some MBA grads had trouble finding suitable jobs. I don't think we're going to see a repeat of that any time soon, but some amount of risk is always there.
There's no getting around the fact that business school represents a huge investment. You need to have faith in yourself and in your choices to feel comfortable making it.
You should approach this investment by doing the same kind of careful research that you would undertake before making any other major investment.
Think carefully about what you want from your career and from your life, and analyze what kind of MBA education is the best fit for your goals and needs. You have a variety of options for getting an MBA education. Make sure you understand what different schools and different programs offer, and how the programs you're looking at have benefited past graduates.
The more information you gather about your school and program options, the more confident you'll be of choosing the MBA program that is the right fit for you, and the more confidence you’ll have when you enter your chosen program.
Next Month: EMBA vs. MBA
One program option that works well for applicants who fit a particular profile is the executive MBA (EMBA). That’s one of the topics I’ll discuss in next month’s column.