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Do You Need an Ivy League MBA to Succeed?

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Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


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Ask the White Guy Luke ViscontiQuestion:
I’m considering going back to school for an MBA.

I have a particular interest in a company that highly favors MBA grads from Ivy League schools. A few colleagues in leadership have expressed their favoritism for the “best” candidates from these affluent institutions.

I consider myself a seasoned professional who meets all of the minimum qualifications of the job description–except the MBA. I have contemplated going back to school, but it won’t be to an Ivy League institution. For one, I don’t have access to an Ivy League education in my local area. And, unfortunately, I don’t have the financial resources to quit working and become a full-time student.

The schools that are available in my area are very credible. I’ve compared their curriculum with the Ivy League schools’. I’ve found that they are all 36 hours with the same classes – just different course names and, obviously, different educators.

If I choose one of the less-than-favorable schools, how can I justify a credible and valued education over an Ivy League graduate?

Answer:
In my opinion, there is a glut of mediocre MBA programs, which has led to a dramatic decrease in the perceived value of an MBA, especially among companies that favor Ivy League backgrounds.

This disproportionately affects people who have less economic means–or connections–for admission to Ivy League schools, but it is a reality in my observation.

Considering you have an interest in a particular company, I suggest you try and find executives that may have non-Ivy degrees. A thorough Internet search, assisted by subscription programs such as Hoover’s (which your local library may subscribe to), may help you find those people.

You may also want to speak to the career-services people at the schools you’re thinking of to see if they have placed anyone at the company you’re interested in.

If you can find people who are not traditional for that firm, you can write them to ask for an “informational interview.” I suspect they would be likely to share some time with you because your question is well thought out.

Once you gain access, I would recommend that you be very direct in asking why this company has such a preference for Ivy League graduates. It concerns me that they would. Even if you get hired, would you be limited in your career for this reason? Does the company irrationally value the Ivy League graduate? If it does, it will be almost impossible to overcome a cultural decision with reason alone.

You’re not fighting just the quality of the education. I’ve observed that Ivy League graduates have a very strong network. Their institutions cultivate an obsessive cohesiveness from the first day. Their alumni associations are powerful and vibrant. Just about every graduate from Harvard or Wharton will take an appointment from a fellow graduate if asked. That person has to perform once they get there, but that level of access is a powerful advantage.

You also can’t ignore that there is a value attached to a brand name. Ask anyone who has paid 10 times what the item is worth to have a special logo on a watch, car or bag. A Chevrolet Aero will get you to the country club as well as a Mercedes, but it won’t raise your social status. I think it relates back to our basic human trait: We’re tribal animals. I’ve found that many Ivy League graduates consider your alma mater to be your tribe.  

By the way, while you’re speaking to the non-Ivy schools you’ve researched, you should ask which companies have hired most of their graduates. If they have a fuzzy answer to a question like this, think hard about what that means: It could mean a poor-quality program.

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