Is a Harvard MBA Worth It?

Headlines suggest the MBA is dead, but current students disagree.

harvard university flag

Photo by Olga Khvan

Prospective Harvard Business School students are preparing for admissions interviews, scheduled to take place in Boston, New York City, Menlo Park, or abroad between October 26 and November 29. But as they practice their responses to the questions they might get asked, a bigger debate continues making headlines: “Is an MBA even worth it?”

“Many MBAs ponder that question,” says Alula Eshete, a first-year HBS student. “For me, the MBA was something I’d been considering for a few years.”

Eshete’s background is in engineering and operations, but he was interested in breaking into the commercial side of the business. To make the switch into such a competitive industry, Eshete acknowledges where he enrolled mattered.

“If I didn’t get into one of the top schools—Harvard being the top of my list—I don’t know if I would have pursued an MBA at that particular time,” Eshete says. “I wasn’t necessarily willing to get an MBA from just anywhere.”

Having the ability to be surrounded by professionals in his desired field was a top selling point.

A similar argument could be made for second-year Harvard MBA candidate Brandon Paquette, who enrolled after spending more than six years in the United States Air Force. He previously earned a master’s in applied statistics online, but lacked the networking opportunities a student gains on campus.

“There’s the ability to just call someone that’s in your class and say, ‘I see you work in this space, can we chat?’” Paquette says. “I never did that in my first master’s.”

Paquette initially considered attending law school. Given that he served as the captain of the United States Air Force Academy’s debate team, the transition seemed more natural.

“You have leadership experience, but you have no specialized skillset,” Paquette says, describing post-military life. “At some level, it’s about broadening your optionality. But being 31 in the legal world is a lot different than being 31 in the worlds you could end up in after business school.”

The military perspective that someone like Paquette brings to the classroom, however, is one first-year MBA candidate Preeya Sud appreciates. That viewpoint, she notes, is one of many students learn from in a typical HBS class.

“I came from a marketing background and am now taking classes in financial reporting and control,” Sud says. “Everyone has a different take on these things. You’re learning from the people around you. The people make the school.”

But the renowned HBS Case Method helps, too. Faculty produce approximately 350 new cases each year, each of which highlight a challenge confronting a company, nonprofit, or government organization. Students are tasked with identifying and analyzing the problem, so they can then recommend alternative courses of action. The class drives 85 percent of the conversation, according to HBS; the professor changes directions when necessary with an occasional observation or question.

“It’s an exciting way to learn,” Eshete says. Because his background is in engineering—“where everything is very black or white…there is one right answer”—the ability to have a dialogue with 90 other students who have the same case is a welcome change. “The professors are leading the charge, but more in a backseat manner. They want our debates to be at the center of the classroom.”

HBS announced in August a new addition to its digital learning initiative, HBX. Called HBX Live, it’s a virtual classroom meant to mimic the classroom-feel and interaction a student would experience in a typical case-based session. Up to 60 participants are able to join in real-time and have their faces displayed on individual screens simultaneously in a studio belonging to WGBH, while others can audit the session as an “observer.”

Although it could be seen as a threat to the traditional model, Eshete describes HBX Live as an “incredible service,” particularly for those who want to learn something new but can’t take two years off for business school, or who have a family to support.

In terms of the content itself, Paquette doesn’t see it as uniquely valuable. “I could read a lot of books and get this knowledge a lot more quickly than I’m doing it now,” he explains. “There’s this intangible network quality people perceive to be a large reason as to why they’re paying all this money [to attend HBS]—you can’t replicate that.”

The future of the MBA, overall, doesn’t seem at all as dismal to Eshete, Paquette, and Sud, though, despite a few alarmist headlines.

“I don’t see any evidence that this degree—or any degree for that matter—is under fire,” Paquette says. “All the big employers are still recruiting here…and certain companies that are perceived as desirable only recruit at certain schools.”

The “MBA is worthless” argument is one largely made by entrepreneurs, such as Tien Tzuo, CEO of enterprise software company Zuora, or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, one of the more aggressive investors on reality TV show “Shark Tank.”

Notes Eshete, “Not everybody is looking for the same thing out of an MBA. If you’re an entrepreneur who has a concrete idea, I would totally say, go use that money you’re investing in an MBA to pursue that idea. If you’re still on the fence and want a safe space to grow that idea, then get your MBA. You could potentially find a business partner here on campus.”

For those preparing for their admissions interview, HBS’s nonprofit student news organization The Harbus recently released its 2015 “MBA Admissions and Interview Guide.” The book features more than 150 questions current HBS students were asked and commentary on how to approach the questions, as well as other advice and interview prep.

Although none of the students interviewed, who each contribute to The Harbus, could recall a question that caught them off-guard, they did have advice for prospective students.

From Eshete: “Tap into anyone you know who’s in the programs and take the time to understand the culture of the schools; you’re not just chasing a brand. Do your research and make sure you’re leveraging [those connections].”

From Sud: “Relax and be yourself, because—at least for me anyway—there’s only so many times you can practice. You can only do the best that you can do. Take the time to re-read your application and understand what you’ve said. You can’t really cram for an interview.”

From Paquette: “One of the things I didn’t take seriously when I got here was all this talk about it being a ‘transformational experience’—I’m a little bit cynical about corporate speak and jargon. But maybe there was something to it. If you’re focusing on what you want to do and if you’re doing that correctly, you’re doing a lot of self-discovery. You’re paying a shit-ton of money, but you have the luxury of soul searching around a whole lot of people who are doing the same thing.”