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Is The MBA Overrated?

Our surprising research suggests that few execs who hit the very top have the degree

In the executive pantheon, David K. Zwiener might be considered a minor god. An executive vice-president at Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. (HIG ), he joined the company in 1995, serving as chief financial officer, president of its property and casualty business, and director. As a graduate of No. 1-ranked Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Zwiener is one of 47,000 living alumni of one of the world's most prestigious MBA programs. But he has an unusual distinction: In 2004 his $3.7 million pay package made him one of only three Kellogg MBAs among the 500 highest-paid executives in the Standard & Poor's (MHP ) 100-stock index that year. "It opens that first door for you," Zwiener says of MBAs in general, and his in particular. "After that, it's up to you."

Zwiener's experience points to a little-realized fact about the MBA: It only gets you so far. In fact, for those seeking a job at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, it's not even a requirement. BusinessWeek research has found that fewer than one out of three executives who reach those lofty heights do so with the help of an MBA. And if you think a sheepskin from a top school is a necessity, think again. Only half of the executives with MBAs went to the top 10 schools in the 2004 BusinessWeek ranking.