The Argument Against Business School

Through the economic meltdown, of course, MBA bashing reached new heights. Eager to find a scapegoat, critics happily assigned blame to business schools for teaching MBAs the merits of financial manipulation that led to a global financial crisis. A Dilbert cartoon strip last year had Alice telling a co-worker, “I hear you have an MBA. Just like the jerks who ruined the economy.” Even a recent Federal Express commercial pokes fun at a stereotypical MBA’s super ego and arrogance. But Kaufman, who renounces the notion that he is an MBA basher, goes far beyond mere name calling. He strikes at the central issues of the degree: Is the education worth the price? Is what you’re taught valuable for a successful career in business? His answer: An emphatic no.

Much of Kaufman’s argument rests on a study published eight years ago by Stanford Business School professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University and Christina T. Fong of the University of Washington. The pair analyzed 40 years of data and studies and came up with a provocative and startling conclusion: “There is scant evidence that the MBA credential, particularly from non-elite schools, or the grades earned in business courses are related to either salary or the attainment of higher level positions in organizations.”


As Kaufman quotes from the document, he is almost giddy. “It’s the first and only systematic study I’ve seen,” he says. “They crunched 40 years of data on job rates, positions, and salaries. They asked whether getting an MBA provides benefits or not. Their answer was no. It does effectively nothing. It had no impact.”

His epiphany occurred five years ago, when he was working at P&G headquarters in Cincinnati as an assistant brand manager for the company’s Home Care division. He had joined P&G straight from the University of Cincinnati by virtue of the school’s cooperative education program. Almost all his peers and managers boasted elite MBA degrees. To overcome his feelings of intimidation and to prepare for the job, he began reading, and reading, and reading, from textbooks, such as the “Essentials of Accounting,” to “Competitive Strategy” by Harvard professor Michael Porter and “The Effective Executive” by the late management guru Peter Drucker. Every day, he would spend hour after hour reading in a quest to deepen his understanding of how the business world worked.

“After I went through the self-education process I felt like a peer,” says Kaufman. “There’s the general impression that getting an MBA puts you on a pedestal in terms of your knowledge and experience and what you’re able to contribute to a business. But I was able to walk into a boardroom and hold my own with people who had graduated from Stanford and Wharton. It was very exciting.”

Then, something else happened. In March of 2005, Harvard rescinded the admission of 119 applicants who had hacked their way into the school’s computer systems to find out if they had been accepted before being officially notified. Kaufman read about the incident on a favorite blog by best-selling business author Seth Godin who had an unusual view of the incident. Harvard, Godin thought, was giving these applicants a gift: HBS was essentially returning $150,000 in tuition and two years of their lives. “Unless you want to be a consultant or an I-banker (where a top MBA is nothing but a screen for admission),” Godin wrote, “it’s hard for me to understand why this is a better use of time and money than actual experience combined with a dedicated reading of 30 or 40 books.”

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