The Argument Against Business School

by John A. Byrne on

Josh Kaufman thinks business school is a waste of time for most people.

Author Josh Kaufman thinks business school is a waste of time for most people.

If Josh Kaufman had gone to business school, he probably would have graduated this year with an MBA from Harvard or Stanford. But Kaufman, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who had worked as an assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble, thinks business school is pretty much a waste of time and money.

MBA programs, he says firmly, have become so expensive that students “must effectively mortgage their lives” and take on “a crippling burden of debt” to get what is “mostly a worthless piece of paper.” Kaufman believes that MBA programs “teach many worthless, outdated, even outright damaging concepts and practices.” And if that’s not bad enough, he insists that an MBA won’t guarantee anyone a high-paying job, let alone turn a person into a skilled manager or leader.

MORE THAN 190,000 PEOPLE EVERY YEAR ARE GETTING A DEGREE THEY DON’T NEED.

Nonetheless, Kaufman estimates that all of these firms combined, from Goldman Sachs to McKinsey & Co., probably hire no more than 5,000 to 10,000 MBAs a year out of the more than 200,000 people who are getting MBAs around the world. The other 190,000 to 195,000 are getting MBAs they don’t really need. “For pretty much everyone else, it’s a waste and a very bad investment,” he insists. ““I would probably be the biggest fan of education programs if they cost less and taught more practical skills. You can get a better education faster and cheaper if you do it yourself.”

“Look,” he says with some hyperbole, “going to Harvard all told can cost you about $350,000. That is mortgage level debt. Put that through an amortization schedule at a 6.8% rate of interest. It’s a $2,200 monthly payment over 30 years. You are spending $821,000 when you account for the interest. The cost is enormous.”

Kaufman says he was recently in a New York airport, waiting for a plane to fly him home to Colorado, when he found himself standing next to a young woman who had just graduated from Harvard Business School. “I asked her what she was doing next and she said she was going to Los Angeles to be a consultant,” he says. “It was clear she wasn’t happy about it. She told me she went to Harvard so she could work in international development and the World Bank told her she had to get a master’s. When she applied again, the bank said it had already met its quota for American hires. She had no illusions. The consulting job became her only option because she had to pay back her loans. I think that’s really, really sad. If she wanted to work in international development, there are thousands of ways to do that. If she were free of that financial burden, she would have tons of options. Now she is forced to do something she doesn’t want to do and won’t like just to pay back the debt.”

Not surprisingly, Kaufman gets his share of hate mail for the message he’s so actively delivering. “I get a lot of not-so-nice letters about how this is wrong and misguided,” he sighs. “I do wish those people well. Frankly, if someone decides to enroll in an MBA program, I hope it turns out well. But there is a much better, faster, more efficient way for these students to do what they want to do. The world would be a heck of a lot better if those people taught themselves what they need to know and then just went out and did it. It’s the waste and inefficiency that really gets to me.”

“Business schools don’t create successful people,” insists Kaufman. “They simply accept them, then take credit for their success. With heavy debt loads and questionable returns, MBA programs simply aren’t a good investment—they’re a trap for the unwary.”

In an era when MBA bashing has become almost fashionable, Kaufman is emerging as business schools’ most unforgiving critic. With his shaved, completely bald head, neatly-trimmed facial hair and rimless spectacles, he looks the part of a young prophet you might find on a city street corner. Founder of PersonalMBA.com and the author of “The Personal MBA,” he’s a passionate advocate for what he calls self-education. Instead of paying up to $350,000 in tuition and forgone earnings to go to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton, Kaufman says a better way to learn business is to open the pages of classic business texts and learn on your own (see his recommended reading list).

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  • JSoriano

    Mr. Kaufman’s point of view is interesting, but the problem is many people feel that way about a Bachelor’s degree. In the military the only difference between an officer and enlisted member is the degree, but that is changing as we speak. The enlisted force is becoming more and more educated. Why is all of this relevant? It is the exposure to ideas which can shape the thinking of the students. Training by itself is not enough in any field, it merely a foundation upon which to build on. Mr. Kaufman should make PersonalMBA free, if he feels so strongly about the subject.

  • AntonM

    I too, was an Assistant Brand Manager at P&G early in my working life and recall how the company used to discourage those at our level from taking an MBA – from how it stiffled creativity to how it boxed in thinking (probably where Kaufman got his idea). And then I had a boss who had a Chicago MBA and a few of my colleagues go to B-school, I realized how an MBA broadened their thinking framework. I eventually went to Chicago GSB (before it became Booth) myself, and I can tell how different it is and feedback to Kaufman what my professors told me and they are similar which I can summarize: “All business schools teach the same knowledge, you can even read about them on your own, but the difference is where you learn it at, the learning context that one finds only in the best business schools.” This context I now appreciate as the sum of the professors (knowledge distilled through research and experience in the real world thru their consulting work or interaction with their former students who now work in the leading companies), classmates (the diversity of their background and their experience) and the other actvities in the school (we had speakers from industry, intership). I pity Kaufman actually who didn’t have these experiences. His prescription is as dangerous as advising people to buy exercise equipment and “do it yourself” at home vs. going to a gym (not just for the trainers but for the motivation to really “work it”). I say dangerous, because just reading these books and then presuming to be able to practice and apply them to real-world can lead to disastrous results, not just to the person but to the companies they work for.

    • DUH

      You cannot practice medicine (legally) without the proper license, but you can start a business without even having gone to kindergarten.

      • IggiPop

        Please, no lame comparisons! If you become a self-educated surgeon I’d better die on my own. But if you become a self-educated businessmen and lose, the society wins because you just injected your money into the system.

    • RK

      I guess the point he makes is of ROI on the MBA. That is true tho.. You spend 200-300 grand on the MBA which you are not sure will give a better job. 
      That doesn’t mean going through the books by yourself will make you a businessman. 

      If you have money to shell out, go to a top B-School..Else use the money judiciously to start your business and use some of those books as reference while you do your business. After all, most successful business have not learnt everything from a B-School

  • Kathryn

    Can Kaufman please come up with a similar book for medical school? I’d like to become a surgeon but don’t want to waste my money on tuition. I’m sure I can learn everything I need to know after reading a couple books. I can probably start seeing patients in just a few short months. Taking appointments now- who wants their gallbladder removed?

    • Overone

      you are an idiot.  MBA cannot be compared to MDs you moron.  if this was an attempt at humor you failed miserably.  I got a masters from NYU and the piece of paper was worth more symbolically than the education.  no one asked me what the program was about.  All i get is: wow you went to NYU.  I admit that it may have opened some doors, but it opened more eyes than doors.  try opening your mind to a different opinion — stupid.  also try reading some of the the recommended books at a minimum.  it is people lke you who perpetuate the mental prisons we live in with our hyped up costly schools.  go look at the statistics on the number of kids who have to go back home  to live with mom and dad because they are buried under tons of debt; while youa re at it look at the number of recent lawyer grads washing dishes for a living.  his point is all about the money — stupid.  graduating with an MD degree pretty much guarantees you a job, if not in specialties, in internal medicine, providing you have half a brain– which clearly you do not.  

      • Obummer

        Get over yourself Overone!

      • http://www.facebook.com/Sumi09 Sumi Allen

        “Students with a pile of debt…” Have you not noticed the economy lately? People won’t hire grads because they’re scared that these people will leave the $12/hour positions once the “economy gets better”. For me, that was over 3 years ago. There are still 47 million Americans on food stamps.

        • wanderer

          do u recommend an MBA

    • John Cornwell

      Business people are given important responsibilities because of performance; that’s how they earn trust. It’s not because they do or do not have an MBA.

      Is your argument that business people without MBAs are ticking time bombs? Or that the only way to learn business is in a master’s program? That’s just wrong, factually and statistically.

  • http://blaywhitby.com Blay

    Josh Kaufman obviously doesn’t mean this stuff seriously. If he did, he would have read some books and learnt how to fly himself back to Colorado. I’ve got ‘teach yourself to fly’ right here. Sorry I’ve nothing on surgery, Kaythryn but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it if you just get out and do it.

  • Travis

    Thanks to Mr. Byrne for an insightful article.

    I managed to start a business from scratch at age 21 which has remained profitable for several years. Recently I thought the next level for me should be an MBA. Much consideration and reasearch later, I see things differently. The cost is too high, the job prospects are too uncertain and my application just isn’t top school material. Am I smart, creative and resourceful enough to be successful even without this vaunted credential? Time will tell.

    Business school can seduce you with promises of prosperity and prestige. It’s the American Dream in degree form just waiting for you to sign up and be part of the club. Too many people get mesmerized by the MBA mystique. The big success stories are a very small part of the overall picture, but they drive most of the publicity. Most people should contemplate the real factors more carefully before taking that fateful plunge.

    If tuition were free, and the loss of 2 years income weren’t an issue, of course it would be preferable to attend an organized program rather than read the textbooks independently. However, given the harsh realities of the current job market, ever fewer MBA grads can look forward to compensation that justifies the actual cost of the program.

    An individual (such as myself) who’s prospects don’t likely include admission to a top 10 degree program, and who must face repayment of a huge debt regardless of what happens after graduation, should strongly consider the possibility that B-School isn’t worth the risk. In many subjects, most of what we learn in college comes in textbooks which we read outside of class anyway. Especially for the sub-elite student, is the added benefit of “face-time” with professors and fellow students worth the hundred-something grand premium? Probably not in most cases, but guess who pays to find out?

    I don’t think reading the canon of business knowledge on one’s own is equal to attending a good school program. However, self-study combined with drive and resourcefulness can get a person pretty far in life, especially with the tuition money repurposed as start-up capital.

  • John A. Byrne

    Travis,

    Thanks much for your thoughtful remarks. If you started a business at such a young age and your enterprise is now profitable, you’re already practicing what many MBAs are learning. Could you benefit from an MBA education? Of course. But is it really something you need to do to be a better entrepreneur? Not if you absorb your day-to-day learning and build on it. Good luck!

  • http://www.tataindicom.in ARUP KUMAR CHAKRABORTY

    Mr. Kaufman have any formal education? I doubt. Actually in the age of 28 any one’s comments come in such a way about study? Actually his blood is wormer than me, Mr.Kaufman can digest stone, isn’t it, by reading the books.
    Actually he is opportunist, in his word he says, without investment he is ready to study. But Mr.Kaufman always think that, without crying of her baby any mother reluctantly not pay/feed her breast food. If you have the financial problem, without loan,How the finance can be achived? You have to go through a proffessional of MBA specialized in finance. You can’t got the same by reading book, if you have, you can suggest the lady in New York airport or us inspite of writing the illmotive artcle. Although as a Management level person in Govt. sector & having 22 yrs working experience, I suggest that how to solve the problem and its ways, reachable with instant dicession making achived only by go through case study & experience for which MBA or EMBA is one of the tool. Now here is some solution for financing,by scholorship, pray/approch to your friend circle, above all approch to any community in the World and placed himself as what you can return to the community,Nation & World after achiving such degrees. In this World, every thing can be acivable with true determination include prfessionalism and astuteness and firm concentration about your GOAL.

    • Dean

      what the fuck are you talking about??? Your English sucks.

    • Bodysurf

      I would never have guessed that you work in government.

      (Yes. That was sarcastic.)

  • todor petrov

    http://mauriceewing.com/2011/03/02/the-business-school-of-tomorrow-death-of-the-mba-part-1/

    yes, the price tag of the mba is obscene but if there is quality – it should be priced correctly, the problem is that not everything that glitters is gold…
    of course you can survive without mba but if you don’t have US/rich country passport, it would be difficult/impossible. grasp the link above, the ivey schools DO make a difference just because they conncect you to rich people…

  • http://James-Hayton.com James Hayton

    I am all for self teaching. In fact, our MBAs could use more self teaching! (I have taught MBAs for several years in three different countries). One problem is that this list is hardly a list of classic management theories. Kawasaki and Godin are great writers and excellent storytellers, but they are not theorists by any stretch of the imagination.

    But I can’t help thinking that reading through a list like this would be very dull and would, as another commenter notes, miss out on at least two other important value-adds of going to school: the social aspects, and the opportunity to learn through debate, argumentation and analysis in a group setting.

  • Joe

    As someone starting their second year of an EMBA program at a top ten school I can assure you it’s a facade and a scam. The only difference is now I know enough to ask for data to assert the school’s implied position of positive returns.

  • http://Www.redchip.com Dave Gentry

    Here’s a guy who has never created a job in his life and with precious little work experience telling us how we should proceed with our business careers. Top quality MBA programs are as much about building a network of key relationships as they are about learning. Kaufman is a babe in the woods as regards business.

    • Daniel Robertson

      Don’t know if Dr. Kaufman knows about business or not, i can’t tell.
      Sure is, MBA is a business itself regardless tuition or quality. It’s about exchanging network key relationship for money. Of course there is a 10% of useful tuition, which represent a pair of steps in a work walk. You don’t “need” a cost MBA to be a better manager, you don’t “change” any mindset with that. What we called “successful manager” is a leader. Leadership can be learnt for 20% i think. The rest is innate. “management” instead, can be learnt for a much bigger percentage, let’s say about 70%.
      But paying more than 150K, for heaven’s sake… just to let them tell you “how to do it” … ?? there is no way. What you have to learn is much cheaper than that. The rest is self made. I’m pretty agree with that.

  • Jsmith

    Oh… so he’s selling books himself. Now I understand why he decided to pick on other people – really good way to get attention.

    Did anyone think ‘charlatan’ anywhere?

  • matt12345

    I agree with the other comments that Kaufman’s position is an interesting one, but two things strike me as glaring omissions from his argument. First, what about the sharing of ideas and learning from peers? “Iron sharpens iron”, that kind of thing? I could read a book about cooking but it won’t give me the nuances I would pick up if cooking with other, more experienced people.  Also, Kaufman keeps referring to (what I assume are) top-10 programs with costs well north of six figures. What about accredited programs at mid-tier universities? Typically these programs have excellent curriculum but not the powerful brand, with a cost that’s a fraction of a top-10 school. I don’t hear any mention of these MBA programs in his bashing. Seems to me like he’s painting with a very broad brush.

  • Tony A

    The MBA programs don’t breed leadership, hence that is not their purpose.  In my mind an MBA in many cases helps to validate what many of us perceive as “common sense”.  I have always done things following “x” but I never thought about “y” which may be far better.  In other words, you can apply the learnings from the MBA programs to maximize its values, but you can’t assume that just because you have the degree that you are somehow “qualified” in any way.  I relate this similar to a lawyer who passes the bar exam and never practices law.  True leaders will use the teachings within any MBA program to apply it in ways that they may not have thought to do so in the past.  Also sometimes the best part of a good (particularly Executive MBA) program is more of the knowledge and contacts you get from your peers rather than the curriculum alone.

  • 32671SIngapore

    The biggest scam of them all is the UCLA NUS EMBA Program. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sumi09 Sumi Allen

    ” If she wanted to work in international development, there are thousands of ways to do that.” Oh enlightened one, can you please elaborate?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Sumi09 Sumi Allen

    Why would I listen to this goof? He got himself a job. Sure if you get work through let’s say, nepotism in monopolized markets during globalization turbulence killing our job market? You don’t need no worthless piece of paper proving your expertise on top of your undergrad in basket weaving. He still doesn’t have advice on how to get work with that worthless piece of paper. The bottom line is that this goof isn’t going to make the necessary introductions people may need and I’m sorry that he even showed up on a discussion about business.

    If he got his undergrad in basket weaving and no further proof that
    he understands let’s say… demographics or customer value- how the heck am I supposed to
    know whether he is good for a marketing department head (if that’s the
    position he is applying for)? I’ve worked with marketing grads (trust fund B’s) who didn’t know the difference between BOD and management.

    I’m sorry that it costs so much. I
    think the horribly high education expenses are a disgrace in this
    country, especially in this turbulent economy. More people as a matter of fact should be able to get some
    schooling on business fundamentals-not less. I can’t afford $70K for a masters, however the world IS changing (markets/business) and unfortunately school-not the media is the one way I am able to keep up with it.
    I’m going back, not for my masters
    but for extra knowledge (and proof that I have that knowledge).

  • Vishnu

    First of all, Josh’s argument is based on a calculation that is flawed. The opportunity cost to do an MBA may be $350,000. Opportunity cost includes tuition, living costs and lost wages. So you will NOT be taking a $350,000 loan. Your total cost with interest will NOT be $821,000. Josh first needs learn to calculate. Probably a MBA would have helped ;)

    • Bodysurf

      The Executive MBA for Harvard and Wharton are both over $170,000 a year, for the 2-year program. That’s money out of pocket, and doesn’t include air travel and expenses for the obligatory overseas assignment

      • emarugby79

        people need to do their math right

        one thing is actual costs you pay and another thing is the opportunity cost (your time, the alternative use of money, the foregone salaries. etc) that is really open for discussion (say you’d invested your money in Argentina Bonds… or Lehman)

        HBS costs you 80 grand a year and you should consider another 80 for housing and food, travel and leisure. so 320 over 2 years. that is the actual cost. and this is the top end of the MBAs in terms of cost. you will probably get some kind of financial aid so you end up with 250 on you debt. you start with some money (probably 50-100) so the debt you carry on “for the rest of your life” is 200 grand, which you can (but shouldn’t) pay off in 2-3 years with bonuses if you went on to work for companies that actually value your knowledge.

        —-

        the real value of biz schools is not so much what you read (you can actually buy all of that for significantly less money than the cost of the MBA) the real value is the network of individuals that you create for a lifetime (if you keep working on it after graduation..) and also the personal interaction with top quality professors and other bright minds that do not necessarily think alike

        is it expensive? yes. is it too expensive? well that is a personal point of view

        ———

        what I find more outrageous is that we pay 250 dollars for an application and we get no feedback whatsoever. there should be some kind of transparency, which does not mean the decision is open for debate or apeal but at least you can learn why it didn’t go through… age/GMAT/CV not strong enough / etc. etc
        (HBS 900 students x12 = 10.800 applications, *250U$D = 2.7 million per year so they have the resources to add 25 words to the rejection letter…)

  • FrankTheEngineer

    I had a younger brother who went to MIT Sloan 20 years ago and gave me much the same advice after I have been admitted and balked at taking on the $100k debt (20 years ago). His advice closely mirrors Kaufman’s.
    You can get the same interaction you get at an MBA program out in the real world and the same applied business knowledge through reading and actual practice.
    The other odd thing to me is, that the MBA is the only professional degree that doesn’t require any sort of formal continuing education or re-certification. All other professions assume that’s integral to remaining a competent professional. I smell a rat.
    I think the other thing that has damaged American business tremendously is how the MBA has become oversold as a credential for being qualified to run a dept or a business on it’s own. Goign to grad school for two years (in anything) hardly qualifies for making you the master of the universe – but you would never know that by listening to freshly minted MBAs who often seem long on ego and short on ethics and moral grounding.

  • Ali

    I agree with Kaufman

    - Before you start your MBA, you need a post graduation plan/strategy. If you plan to work for big managment consulting or investing banking company, then yes, you might need that elite MBA and that massive burden of debt is somewhat justified. However if you want to do something else like marketing/sales/finance in the corporate world then these elite MBAs might not be the best way to go.

    - Alot of ppl digest the massive debt by justifying to themselves that the elite MBA will pay back in the long term. However, the more years pass by after the MBA, the less important that MBA becomes. So 10 or 15 years after graduation, it your work experience/results that count way way way more than which college you went to so many years ago.

  • Mooniac

    Bingo! Dead-on! On the other hand, to some extent people deserve that (and not just for Ivy League Schools, also for University of Chicago or Stanford) because they only go there because they want to make contacts to people in the same situation that would help them get big jobs later on. And that’s not the primary function of the university system. People want to pay for contacts, not (only) for the eduction.

  • Pre-Raphaelite Businessman

    Nice article Josh – your concept is great – but you are 50 years too progressive! Read Chester Barnard and Mary Parker Follett and texts from the 1930′s. Truly classical, real, and relevant!

  • m444ss

    Of course the author is an entrepreneur, not a corporate ladder climber; and I’d agree whole-heartedly except for one thing. The people that do the hiring don’t generally recognize any value in “doing it yourself.” I spent 24 years in the Navy; reached the equivalent level of Executive Vice President; yet, because my technical experience is in facilities construction, maintenance and services, I can’t get the time of day at the executive level in any other field despite my extensive experience and tremendous success in leadership, management, administration and finance. In fact, I’ve been told explicitly by my current employer (in the banking industry), “around here you’re just an engineer; senior management here is not going to view you as executive material with your background.” I was even told by an executive headhunter friend that he were unable to convince a client to even interview a highly qualified candidate because the candidate didn’t have a certain string of letters after his name.

    I rose to the senior executive level in the military through demonstrated ability, but it appears that in the private sector one must have a certain pedigree to get above a certain level in the corporate hierarchy regardless of demonstrated ability at the senior executive level and a record of consistent success.

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