Financial Poise
Business School

I Went for an MBA at 43. You Might Want to Think Twice.`

After 20 years as a lecturer in higher education, I left my formal teaching job and decided to go back to school to get a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. I hoped to gain skills to help me better develop and secure funding for the educational nonprofit I had founded: 21st Century Literacy

I’m also a lifelong learner who loves education, and I looked forward to returning to school. You can imagine how appealing it was to sit in the classroom instead of standing in front of one. 

Unfortunately, my principled excitement ran head-first into a brick wall of reality: business school, as it turns out, might not always provide as much value as you think. Especially if you believe rankings matter.

Picking an MBA Based on Prestige

In selecting the University of Texas at Dallas’ Naveen Jindal School of Management, I thought I was being a savvy consumer. At the time, various rankings placed UT Dallas between 7th to 38th among the best MBA programs in America and between 40th and 79th among the top global MBA programs. 

A few other considerations made the school especially attractive to me. Because I was returning to school during a pandemic, I was looking for an online program. Naveen Jindal was tied at 6th place for Best Online Master’s in Business Programs back then. 

It was also relatively cost-effective. In-state tuition came in at about $50,000 for two years, less than half that of most top-ranked business schools. Harvard, in contrast, then cost about $150,000 for two years. And that’s just tuition — not books or living expenses. 

Unsurprisingly, Naveen Jindal School of Management then enjoyed a #1 ranking in terms of salary-to-debt ratios of MBA graduates. Between its rankings and price tag, the school seemed to offer excellent value.

Reality Runs Into Romance: the Actual MBA ROI

Unfortunately, while I’d stop short of calling the Naveen Jindal School of Management a diploma mill, it’s close enough that I’d still call it a scam. What I got for my money was a dumbed-down, undergraduate-level, teach-to-the-test curriculum. 

Serious MBA Professor Credibility Issues

When you enroll in any institution of higher learning, you assume that the person teaching your class has proven themselves worthy of guiding your education. This goes double when talking about a pretty well-ranked business school.  

The Naveen Jindal School of Management likes to brag on its website and in emails to students that professors publish high-quality research in prestigious journals. The implication is that these brilliant minds must be high-quality lecturers in the classroom. 

At a starting point, their materials certainly failed to inspire confidence. Rubrics, assignments, and exams frequently featured a slew of serious errors. Apparently, these professors felt the purported papers they sought to publish deserved more attention to detail than their job in education.

In one set of slides, a marketing professor frequently repeated the phrase “word-of-mouse,” instead of “word-of-mouth.” The same professor had a slide that stated baby boomers’ age ranged from “55-75.” On the exam? The right answer was “45-64.”

That was the least of it. Very quickly, it became clear that promises of being instructed by storied professionals were, at best, aspirational.

Surface-Level Instruction in an MBA? Yes.

Everyone screws up with a typo now and then. Typically they don’t hold a student’s academic future in the balance when they do, but apparently… c’est la vie?

Forgiveness might have been the proper course of action had the substance of the instruction wowed the students or added value to my own life. It did not.

Nope. Most professors rambled about highly generalized topics. If you read the textbook (which most students didn’t), the purpose of lectures was to record specific phrases that would later show up on an exam. 

Professors were unresponsive at best and arrogant at worst. They gave little (if any) feedback on assignments. If they gave feedback, it consisted of just a few words, like “good job.” Grades were purely numerical. If we were lucky, we got a grade next to a generalized rubric.

Professors used simplistic, poorly designed presentational materials. We’re talking about the sort of cluttered PowerPoints with outdated images and information that (in theory, at least) might have earned any of us a poor grade were common. 

I was able to roughly date one professor’s slides to the early 2000s. He used archaic website screenshots and many of his “facts” were now irrelevant. Some professors used images and videos from the 1970s and 80s—and no, they were not used to make any kind of historical point. Lectures hadn’t been updated for decades. Despite this – still, typos.

Peer Apathy as the Norm

My peers were apathetic and contributed little, if anything, to class discussions. Group projects were the most common type of assignment aside from multiple choice exams. Group projects, which consisted of short, formulaic PowerPoint presentations in place of substantive essays, appeared to be a cynical way to ease the burden of grading rather than a tool to develop student learning.

For students interested in blind memorization for the sake of passing a multiple-choice exam (an exercise sociologists call “playing school”), this might have been satisfactory. But personally, the experience left me filled with a mix of rage, disgust, and disappointment. I also experienced a great deal of apathy because there was nothing that I could do as a consumer to enhance my educational experience. Most professors didn’t care about me as a student, and they didn’t care that I had my own learning objectives.

Anatomy of an AWFUL MBA Class

You might think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. If anything, this description provides an understated appraisal of how much utility you can expect from an MBA. Let’s explore this through an example.

My calculus class consisted of weekly one-hour videos and an office hour that lasted 30 minutes. This is much shorter than the minimum four hours of instruction and office hours required by state law. 

As with most of my classes, there was no textbook. Nor was there any feedback on our work or exams. To make matters worse, the multiple-choice computer exams were riddled with typos. This made problems difficult, if not impossible to answer. 

In fact, the final exam had so many critical typos that the professor had to send out an emergency email during the test. He had to manually score the exam and throw out some questions. No one even got a grade on the exam. Somehow, he calculated our end-of-course grade. No one knew how.

It’s Not Just MBA Programs

While my MBA experience was bad, I wasn’t all that surprised. Maybe I should have known better. It certainly would have saved me money. 

Unfortunately, poor quality and the lack of authentic educational value extends throughout higher education. I’ve seen the problem up close.

I’ve taught at top-level research universities, non-selective state universities, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. I saw the same dumbed-down and teach-to-the-test curriculum transpire next to the cynical practice of playing school at every institution where I worked (with the one exception of a very expensive private college). 

There is also a large body of research on the lack of “higher education” in institutions of higher education, including in Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana’s award-winning book (worth reading, by the way). He was far from the first to sound the alarm. As Donald Levine, former Dean of the University of Chicago, once lamented:

The scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing.

I’ve spent 11 years as a college student and over 20 years as a lecturer in higher education. I can tell you that most colleges don’t provide much value to students, especially in terms of learning practical knowledge and useful skills. Most colleges are good at giving students fun social experiences, like football games and parties. But I’ve rarely seen an institution of higher education that actually cared about learning or goals, let alone a “higher education” that will improve their lives.

There are very, very good reasons students are skipping a college education altogether.

Technology Amplifies the Higher Education Value Challenge

We believe that institutions of higher education will offer just that — education at a higher level. In a world where information on topics previously relegated to these ivory towers can be accessed easily online, however, the current model falls short in terms of a student’s ROI.

This model will quickly become less valuable in today’s technologically-advanced world. With AI offering students an easy method of gaming the kinds of essays professors like my own rarely bothered to honestly access… what’s the point? 

Our methods for evaluating comprehension in students need work. The “teach-to-the-test” philosophy does not work when students can easily make a machine give them the path forward to a superb grade.

If you don’t think it matters, consider this: would you rather be represented by a lawyer who passed the bar because they skated through classes with AI-generated essays and managed to memorize enough to pass the bar? Or would you rather a legal professional who had to run a gauntlet in classes that forced them to think critically and demonstrate it in the moment – the same way they would be asked to do on your behalf in court?

If you think that sounds absurd, consider this: absolute charlatans have gotten unqualified practitioners into courtrooms, operating rooms, and more for decades now.

Dr. Dante Would Like a Word

Recent years have seen significant scrutiny paid to for-profit institutions for higher education. Like some of the correspondence schools of old, these degree mills require little for a piece of paper indicating that they had worked very hard.

Despite the examples that could immediately come to mind today (*cough, cough* Trump University *cough, cough*), Dr. Dante might be the most prolific steward of such educational models. You may never have heard of him. But at one point or another, he was:

  • A world-class hypnotist teaching others how to hypnotize
  • Husband to none other than the “Sweater Girl” herself – Lana Turner
  • A permanent makeup expert teaching others how to complete a procedure he knew absolutely nothing about
  • The founder and beneficiary of arguably the most exploitative fake for-profit university… in the world and history

At the very least, a recent podcast on the man whose real magic was convincing others he had credibility offers an incredibly fascinating and revealing profile of his entire (and bafflingly long) criminal career. 

But what was so horrifying for officials was the school’s influence in the wild. He founded “Columbia State University” (not to be confused with the legitimate institution,  the actual Columbia University), ultimately granting thousands of students degrees ranging from undergraduate to a Ph.D. in as little as 27 days… with no textbooks (sound familiar?), instruction, assignments, or exams. 

By the time the school was legally shut down, they had found terrifying examples of people listing themselves as medical professionals due to Dr. Dante’s promises. And people bought it. Some people working in the government listed a Columbia State degree among their accolades.

The Doctor, the Doctorate, and You

Let’s be clear: UT Dallas and Dr. Dante’s Columbia State University are not the same. And employers today (usually) take a closer look at the legitimacy of a resume’s stated credentials than they might have in years past. 

But therein lies the rub. On the one hand, degree scrutiny offers a necessary form of gatekeeping in complex professional arenas. On the other hand, we must ask: in a world where well-ranked programs offer shallow instruction and suspect accountability, what purpose does that scrutiny serve?

Dr. Dante used to argue that he awarded “degrees” based on “life experience.” He was running a complete scam but had a somewhat reasonable point. So reasonable, in fact, that many universities working with non-traditional students today (read: not navigating academia straight out of high school) credit for their real-life experiences. 

But in between Dr. Dante and a (theoretically) seriously valuable degree like an MBA is something that blends experience with theory, history, and the current environment to make important lessons, information, and practices valuable to the consumers about to be served. We’re missing the boat.

The Caveat: COVID

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded all this confusion. As schools panicked in a rush to keep student dollars coming their way (especially absent sporting event revenues), they finally forced themselves into a digital education model that used existing technology to connect professors with students across the country and world. 

In fairness, that was a good thing. More students having access to higher education helps everyone. And recent data suggests employers no longer view receiving a degree online as less valuable than receiving one in person.

But it also made it difficult to discern the value of a degree from a given school. Depending on the professors on the other side of that digital grading divide, even the education you receive from a reputable school  might look more like Dr. Dante’s instruction than the caliber of instruction your tuition should theoretically receive in exchange.

Want to Change That? Treat Educators Better

To be exceedingly clear: professors (mostly) do not walk into their jobs. Exceptional professors frequently get relegated to an “adjunct” status where they get paid below a living age for the privilege of maybe – maybe – having a chance at a still (usually) inadequate salary for the years they have put into developing their knowledge, skills, and teaching methods. 

We’re talking about an average salary of $24,000 a year for an adjunct professor. Over 25% are on government assistance.

As frustrating as unengaged professors might be, can you blame them? In what world, in any field, would a working force be motivated to do the best work possible when they are paid very little after having done a great deal of training? Why on earth would you bend over backward to be exceptional when that work won’t deliver higher wages or a stronger degree path?

This problem, of course, extends far beyond higher education. We do not pay any educators anywhere near the worth of their time and effort. 

Families in New York City often pay more annually for one child to go to a pre-K facility than the average salary of a single public school teacher responsible for guiding dozens of kids will make as an annual salary. All while teachers pay out of their own pockets to make sure kids have the supplies they need.

So you want to make sure students receive the education they deserve? You want an MBA to mean more? Pay the professors and kindergarten teachers – all of whom we ask to deliver knowledge to future titans of industry – what they deserve.

To borrow from Sorkin, schools should be palaces. They build the future. If we want an MBA to offer true value, we should treat schools accordingly.

So… about that MBA…

I’m not saying getting your MBA is a bad idea. In many cases, it can make sense.

But if you’re interested in real learning rather than rankings, do your due diligence. Visit the school. Talk to professors and current students. Ask them about the quality of learning in the classrooms. Dig into the research of professors to find one that writes about what you want to learn. You can tell a lot about the quality of a teacher by reading their work and listening to them talk. 

You need to be sure on all those fronts before signing a check. Hopefully, you can learn from my mistake.

Want to improve your financial literacy beyond these money basics lessons? Make sure you check out the Financial Poise On-Demand Webinar Series. From how to invest to how to build a business, the topics covered are all but endless! Click here to learn more about our offerings.

This is an updated version of an article from 2021. © 2023. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

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About Josh M. Beach

J. M. Beach is founder and Director of 21st Century Literacy. He is a scholar, a teacher, and entrepreneur. He is the author of several books on education, including Can We Measure What Matters Most? Why Educational Accountability Metrics Lower Student Learning and Demoralize Teachers and The Myths of Measurement and Meritocracy: Why Accountability Metrics…

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