Darden’s Dean on the Value of School Brand

Robert-F-BrunerRobert Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, had an illuminating post on his blog Wednesday about MBA applicants and the value of the school brand.

The inspiration: Catherine Rampell’s article in Monday’s New York Times“Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?”, which asked a question many applicants might wonder themselves: Will you make more money if you go to Harvard or Harvey Mudd? Check out the Times link for the full run-down of facts and figures. Here’s the nugget we care about:

According to the research, attending one relatively elite college (like Harvey Mudd) rather than another (like Harvard) doesn’t much affect a student’s future income. Rather, it’s the student who matters. Hard-working, ambitious students will do well wherever they go. The opposite applies to mediocre or lazy students.

“I have to say that the findings are roughly consistent with my experience as an educator,”  Bruner writes. What, then, he asks, are the implications for prospective applicants to B-schools? Bruner lays out three possibilities, condensed below..

1. For the really good applicants, the anguish over the relative brand strength of a school is unnecessary. A top consideration for them in deciding where to apply is the strength of one school’s brand over another. For “hard working, ambitious students” you can’t monetize the brand. Very soon after you get the MBA the world stops asking you where you went to school and starts asking you what you can actually do. The best students accomplish a lot and get paid for it.

2. The reality is that B-schools are not perfect substitutes for one another. If you are “hard-working and ambitious,” you should seek to attend the school that will most transform you as a leader, to go on and do the great work of which you are capable””specifically, this means matching your preferred style of learning to the school’s style of instruction. If brand is less important, then style becomes profoundly important. In short, you must figure out what is your preferred style.

3. Selectivity matters for the quality of the learning experience. If you are surrounded with “mediocre or lazy” students, you won’t be stretched. ”We’re coming up with hard evidence,” said Gordon Winston, an economist at Williams College, ”that being surrounded by other bright, demanding students has a real effect on academic performance.”

Bruner closes  by encouraging applicants to focus on fit rather than brand strength. At Darden, he says, “We look for people who are high performers, whose learning appetites match our style, and who have a zest for learning that is active, an ability to work in teams, an aspiration for leadership, a practical action orientation, prefer smaller classes, and above all, hold a serious respect for honor and ethics.”

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