Is a Recession a Good Time to Get an MBA?

Last Updated Apr 8, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,
I'm in my mid-twenties, have a good job, and like my work. I'm wondering, however, if now might be the right time to start thinking about business school. What do you think? Is now, during this kind of downturn, a good opportunity to do it? Should I be thinking about this at all?
Academically Minded in San Fran

Dear Fran,

What a good question! Because there are, honestly, two discrete answers I can offer. The first is kind of factual, as much as anything is factual these days. The second is purely my opinion. Let's try to do the "facts" first.

Business schools like to entertain folks who have a certain amount of real-world experience. This is actually true of all graduate schools, whatever stripe. They don't mind taking the money of people who graduate from college and go directly to their doors, of course. They're in business just like anybody else. But they really get excited about people who have exited the ivy halls, taken a job, thought about who or what they might like to be, and then, with a sense of purpose and experience to match, have actively elected to focus on the field of endeavor that the school purports to address. That means your chance of gaining entry to a top-notch biz school is probably better right now than it was when you were a green kid without a clue.

And there's a lot to be said for the business-school experience. First, it gets you out of the world and off the street at this very dangerous time. If you are de-cruited at this juncture, your chance of being accepted to a top MBA factory is lower than if you migrate from a real job. Second, you'll be doing something that will probably be of some career value later if you want to do certain kinds of jobs for a living, like investment banking, marketing, consulting, or finance. All of those fields value the evanescent charm of an MBA. Third, wouldn't it be nice to just kick back and not worry about anything for a couple of years? I'd go back to school right now if I could, although by no means to business school.

Now we get to Answer No. 2: See, I don't believe you learn about business in business school any more than I think you learn about acting in acting school, journalism in journalism school, and so forth. I make an exception for medical school, because in that case you're playing with actual livers and spleens and don't want to get them confused. But business is not a science. And some of the lessons they impart to you in the hallowed institutions of higher learning are really quite bad. In fact, I believe that a large part of every meltdown that has occurred in my lifetime has been the work of people who learned their craft at business school.

It is at institutions like Wharton and Harvard that fresh faced young greedmeisters learned to view business as the manipulation of numbers on a spreadsheet, not a transaction between workers, customers, and products. These are the guys who ran the 1990s, with its insider-trading scandals and insane mergers and acquisitions, which drove thousands out of their jobs and destroyed billions of dollars in value. These are the idiots who invented the idea of buying things with debt, not money. More recently, the geniuses from MIT and other institutions of higher learning formulated the risk profiles that destroyed the housing market and invented all kinds of financial instruments that were truly instrumental in doing nothing but making a few people rich and a lot more poor. I don't like what they teach people in business school. It may be valuable for some. It may help fuel certain successful types. But I don't like it, because I've met one too many B-school graduates who I've wanted to punch in the nose.

Perhaps more to the point, most of the powerful, successful people I know in my world did NOT go to business school. Some did, it is true, and they roam around finance departments doing whatever it is they do. Sometimes they end up planning mergers and acquisitions and other actions that move assets around on paper -- and in real life, of course. But the CEOs, the big-time operating officers and business affairs people? Most of them went to the famous School of Hard Knocks. They don't teach you as much economics there, if that is indeed a discipline worth teaching, which I now highly doubt, but you end up knowing more about people. And you know what? In the end, that's what business is really about. Not numbers. People.

You have a good job. You're doing well in the world for a young person. You have ambition, and that's good. But think long and hard before you go to Stepford Management School. It may be right for you. But life may have other, more human things in store.