Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Your MBA: Come Rain or Shine?

At Forte's London MBA Forum on Tuesday, a question came up about weathering the current financial crisis and whether it was wiser to delay returning to business school because of cloudy forecasts for job opportunities or take shelter there knowing that the economy and job outlook will be sunnier in a couple of years.

A number of questions naturally follow…Will applications to top MBA programs increase this year because of corporate mergers and bankruptcies? Will the competition for seats in the classroom be fiercer this year? If I do get in, will I have trouble getting loans? What happens in 2 years when I graduate--will I have a job?

These are all smart questions to be considering, but in these unpredictable times, it is sometimes tough to find the answers. It's much like the weather forecast you hear on the evening news. Take the week of Hurricane Ike. I live in Austin, Texas, and on Monday before the storm, I was to expect a 90 percent chance of rain and gale force winds. On Wednesday, that percentage dropped to 50. By Saturday, the storm had made landfall, moved north past Austin and we were left with a sunny and beautiful day. In no way am I faulting the weather professionals or diminishing the impact this storm had on many peoples’ lives. But, the basic fact is that the art of weather prediction is much like making predictions on the financial turmoil we’re experiencing now. It’s near impossible to do long-term. And even short-term predictions can be dicey.

If business school is in your future, consider this: applications will most likely increase for the class entering in 2009. A recent article in the New York Times mentioned that GMAT registrations are up 11.6 percent over last year. But when it polled several admissions professionals at top business schools, the forecasts were mixed--some said the economy drives applications while others reported no correlation. No matter if they’re up or not, this indicator should not drive your decision to return to business school. If this is the time for you to get your MBA—either personally or professionally—then you will find the right school and you will be admitted. My advice to you is to be smart about selecting where you apply. Pick a school that matches up with your career objectives, your personal interests; find the one that has the students and faculty that will inspire and challenge you. Make a short list—a stretch school, a couple of safe bets, and a back-up. Apply to them all, visit the campuses, attend classes, talk to the alumni, and see what happens. There’s a very good chance that going through this process will make your decision very clear.

What about funding your education? Across the U.S. stories indicate that access to money is tight all around—from small business credit to mortgages to student loans. This might be a short-term problem that won't exist when you enter business school next fall. However, it's always smart to have a plan. Perhaps saving more over the next year would be a good idea in order to have a cushion in case loans are still hard to come by. Just so you know, MBA students are traditionally one of the lowest risks in the student loan market because they pay back their loans in-full and on-time. But if everyone is still feeling the crunch a year from now, there's no way to predict how this will affect MBA student loans. For non-U.S. students who want to study in the U.S. the access to loans might be even tighter. In the last few years, banks have been backing MBA student loan products for international students with a U.S. co-signer. I hear from several sources that these products are being pulled by the banks, so securing a loan might be difficult or non-existent.

And in 2011, when you’re ready to graduate, my prediction is that the financial crisis will be over, companies will still be recruiting MBAs, and a job opportunity will be there for you. But I can guarantee that this educational experience will drive you to be a more strategic and analytical thinker and a more confident and thoughtful leader. You’ll have an extended network of peers that you can rely on throughout your career. And you’ll have a set of skills and abilities that no one can take away from you. The MBA is an investment in you and the dividends will always pay out.

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