Brand or Substance: Does a Harvard or Stanford MBA Still Matter? (Part 1 of 2) - Blog
Instinctively her chest tightened, spine stiffened and found herself nibbling on her lower lip. The anticipation is spiked with dread. That surreal feeling of an obsession on the cusp of entering the realm of possibility. For every Harvard MBA dream that came true; nine others would rue the dimmed possibility cast off a cruel lesson. With poise more reminiscent of a crack-head than that of a management consultant, Maya found herself in that flummoxed moment of picking up the phone with the “617”area code emblazoned on the caller-id screen. She knew it was the Harvard Admissions Office. She knew that 60 seconds later her life would be altered. The career she had meticulously built would have to take a two-year hiatus for the seductive appeal of a Cambridge-branded education – should she be accepted. Complicating matters, since submitting her MBA application she had been promoted to an associate role – typically requiring an MBA. The caller greeting was definitive: “Hi Maya! Welcome to the Harvard Business School Class of …” How would Maya decide?


From Mumbai to Manhattan

Maya had been an adolescent when she first arrived to the U.S. Her father, a former diplomat for India, had passed away in an airplane crash on a trip to Africa before she was twelve years old. The un-expected death prompted her mother to migrate to the U.S. Life in the U.S. was hard - very different than her gilded lifestyle in India or her father’s last station in London, UK. The fall had taken a toll on her Mom and even the good graces of Maya’s aunt & uncle – who they were staying with – sometimes seemed to come with a pinch of salty condescension. Her mother, never re-married and was a secretary at a small construction company. This experience seared a desire to help her family by getting stellar grades at NYU and starting a successful career. Now at 25 years of age, Maya was a successful management consultant in New York City. Yet… she wanted more. The MBA promised to open her field even if came with over a $200K price tag. With the promotion, however, that price tag went up considerably with the opportunity cost of her increased salary.


Decision Framework & Crimson Oak’s Advice
Three days after receiving the HBS Admissions call Maya’s head was still in the clouds. She had called her family, friends and her Crimson Oak MBA Admissions consultant. Sitting at a café, during a coffee break, the unthinkable came to mind: should she decline the HBS offer and stay in her rising consulting career? Was she attending solely for the “brand” or the “substance”? She scheduled a consultation call with her Crimson Oak consultant for a more objective, expert third-party perspective. The next evening during the call, she was presented with a 3-point framework to re-assess her decision: 1) rationale 2) optionality and 3) costs (emotional and financial). Highlights of the consultation follow:
  1. Rationale - Why?

    The “ROI of education” has been strewn across news media headlines for the past few years, the “unthinkable” was now being considered more and more: is this degree worth it? The degree itself can be worth not much more than the stationary it’s printed on unless it’s married with thoughtful perseverance. A degree can never give you substance -- you had that a long time before ever any top school discovered you. Remember the rationale for applying –career advancement or career switch or perhaps to build an expansive network. Although there are multiple paths to success. Revisit your assessment as to the probability of success for each goal relative to achieving it without the platform of a top MBA program.

  2. Optionality – What if?

    Brands represent the promise of an experience. What is Harvard Business School’s promise? In projecting your MBA career, what do you envision the possibilities to be after graduating – when you are an HBS alum? Will your options have been expanded be going? Where would your options have been tightened? Weighing the counter-factual is also one way of gaining clarity. For instance, if you had not been accepted, what would your portfolio of options be in that scenario?

  3. Relationships – How much?

    Taking a two-year break can be costly on two fronts: 1) emotional relationships and 2) financial opportunity costs. The former can be hidden in the middle of excitement of the new relationships that you will build on new MBA campus can over-shadow the existing relationships that will be strained and in the worst case, will be lost. The transformative experience may require you to lose some of your present cherished relationships. Financially, the opportunity cost of lost income and the projected income trajectory you are on has to balanced by the envisioned post-MBA career. From just the financial perspective, what is your probability-weighted future income stream after graduating with your MBA?

When Prof. Clay Christensen recently asked is “Harvard Business School being disrupted?” - the question was not only rhetorical. The substance of the MBA is always debatable – is it knowing some strategic framework or finance formulas “substance”? The criticism she had heard laced with ulterior motives and confusion. Rather than binary , the two are inter- linked: without perception of value there is no substance; without knowledge there is no sustaining the brand. As Maya reflected on the decision points laid our during her consultation, she knew her answers to the questions would lead to a resounding “yes” to attending Harvard Business school. Her approach to decision making – seeking outside expert advice, reflecting and recognizing her options – including status quo- would hold her in good stead. Two years later she would be faced with an even more vexing decision. Grow & Lead.