Runner Up Business Schools That Make The Grade

Recession. Imminent war. All-around uncertainty. It's hardly the time to be going for an MBA. Or is it?

Many of the nation's best business schools say applications are up significantly over last year's record levels, as more people seek refuge from a crumbling economy and attempt to hone their skills. "It's the best time to go to business school," says Jack Borsting, dean of the University of Southern California's B-school, "because you can take a few years off, upgrade your human capital, and come back into the work force when things are expanding again."

But what if you are not able to get into a Top 20 program? A slew of other excellent institutions also grant MBAs. As part of the recently published BUSINESS WEEK's Guide to the Best Business Schools (McGraw-Hill, $14.95), BUSINESS WEEK put together a list of 20 runners-up to its 1990 survey of the Top 20 (BW--Oct. 29). This next-best bunch, which is not ranked, was based on the opinions of leading corporate recruiters.

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE. You'll find some familiar names, including Yale University's School of Management and Michigan State University's B-school. You'll also discover lesser-known schools with superb programs, such as Washington University's John M. Olin School of Business in St. Louis and Emory University's B-school in Atlanta.

Why go to a second-tier school in the first place? For one thing, entry is likely to be easier. The average Graduate Management Admission Test score for these schools is 599, compared with 631 for the Top 20. The second-tier schools accept 35% of those who apply, compared with 21% for the first tier.

Even if you can squeeze through the tougher admissions screen of a Top 20 school, however, you still might want to consider one of the runners-up. One obvious reason is cost. Top 20 schools generally charge much more for tuition. Besides, if you're a hot prospect, these schools are more apt to dangle lucrative scholarships in front of you. Eager to lure high-caliber applicants, the University of Minnesota B-school now makes full-tuition fellowships available to up to 30 entering students each year. That's a free MBA for as much as 20% of the class. USC's B-school doles out $1.6 million in scholarship money annually, up from $1.2 million two years ago. The Olin School, with a financial aid budget of $1.4 million, handed out financial support to 68% of its latest MBA entering class.

A degree from one of these schools may in some cases carry more cachet than a Top 20 diploma. The reason? They often boast strong regional reputations and ties to local business communities. If you plan to stay in the South, for example, an MBA from Emory or Vanderbilt University could carry more weight than one from Stanford University.

You also might employ a buy-low strategy in choosing one of these schools because some are poised to break into the first tier. Emory has lured faculty from such powerhouses as Northwestern, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton, Harvard, and MIT. Only two years ago, the graduating class posted an average GMAT of 557. Today, Emory is one of fewer than 40 schools in the U. S. to reach the 600-average mark. "Emory has an excitement and momentum going that I didn't feel at other schools," says Miles Jones, who expects to graduate this year.

LEARNING FAST. Moreover, many of these schools boast unique programs. In manufacturing, corporate recruiters say the best MBA students in the field hail from Purdue University's Krannert School of Business Management. USC offers one of the best programs in entrepreneurship, requiring students to write business plans that sometimes get launched.

If the two-year commitment required for an MBA program has held you back from applying, you might consider the University of Pittsburgh's Katz School of Business, where a top-quality MBA can be had in just 11 months. AT&T Chairman Robert Allen calls the program "the intellectual equivalent of swimming the English Channel underwater." But the savings in time and money may be worth the grueling pace.

The second-tier schools also lean far more toward experimentation and innovation than their higher-ranked counterparts. Several schools, including Case Western Reserve University and Southern Methodist University, assess the strengths and weaknesses of each entering MBA student. They then use the information to tailor an educational program for each individual. The schools reassess a student's skills throughout the two years, including right before graduation. "I can see us handing our graduates work programs along with their diplomas," says David Blake, dean of SMU's Edwin L. Cox School of Business.

Another school adopting more creative approaches to B-school education is Yale. The business school fell out of the Top 20 because its graduates were highly critical of an overhaul of the program by Dean Michael Levine. But the controversy has overshadowed some truly innovative changes. The dean himself now teaches a year-long course that brings in business executives for real-world discussions that relate to the theories taught in other classes. In the second year, students choose from about a half-dozen unusual courses that are team-taught by professors from different disciplines. One such topic: Managing the AIDS Epidemic, which examines public policy responses to the disease.

Any of these schools can help sharpen your management skills while you're sitting out an economic downturn. But don't expect to escape the real problems confronting the business world completely. You'll get a good taste of them at any top B-school.