In Defense of the MBA

Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’ve noticed a number of articles that question the value of an MBA degree. The most recent and egregious example was published in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal:A Smart Investor Would Skip the MBA,” by Dale Stephens. Stephens is the author of Hacking Your Education and the founder of, a site devoted to those who would pursue their own education without benefit of a classroom.

Well, a smart reader would skip reading his rant about the worthlessness of an MBA degree and get at the facts that Stephens’s piece lacks. I should have taken Sam Goldwyn’s advice when one of his young assistant directors asked for his review of a friend’s script. His response: “It’s so bad you shouldn’t even ignore it.”

Stephens claims that good business schools “deliver two main values: educational content and a network.” Easy, right? For the content, you go online. “You’ll get to watch the same lectures but for free.” Building a network, he feels, is more valuable than the content but more difficult to achieve. Networks cannot be bought. They have to do with relationships and are “founded on trust.”

That’s only one of the reasons I could not simply “ignore” Stephen’s column. His remedy is stunningly simple-minded and contradictory. How many teams or interpersonal relationships can be built by just going online? Stephens makes it all sound easy: “Invest in buying coffee, drinks and dinner for people you want to get to know. This may be deeply uncomfortable, and that’s good.” He goes on to say that “building  an army of people who trust you and think you’re talented will be invaluable when you look for jobs.” What he doesn’t say is that the cost of all those dinners and drinks may, depending on the number in Stephen’s army, cost more than a year’s tuition.

Stephens ends his column by touting the benefits of Dev Bootcamp. This is a nine-week training course in programming and costs about $12,000. It takes people with no experience and teaches them how to code. Last year, Stephens reports, 88 percent of its graduates got job offers at an average salary of $79,000. “Far better,”  he argues, “than for students fresh out of MBA programs.” He wonders, strictly from a cost-benefit point of view, if the very same students who attended Harvard Business School ($174,000 for two years) “took the same amount of money and invested it in themselves. How would they compare after two years?”

Good question, I thought. Maybe they’d feel pretty damn good and maybe not so good a year or so after graduation, when they lose their jobs because coding was outsourced to Thailand.

In his final paragraph, Stephens artfully impales the reader on the horns of a useless dichotomy, asking “whom you would rather hire: the candidate who built a profitable business over the course of two years, or the candidate who sat in lectures and reviewed case studies to get a degree?”

B-Schools were founded at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th not only to teach “educational content,” but also to broaden the moral fabric of our nation’s leaders. Writers and other pundits, who share Stephens’ metaphysics, offer a new version of the American Dream: Drop out of college, find a worthy sponsor to support your genius, make a ton of money … and then?

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