Best state schools for MBA students

BY Sam BeckerSeptember 07, 2021, 2:00 AM
An Indiana University fan celebrates after Victor Bezerra’s scoring a goal during a football match between Indiana University and UCLA at Armstrong Stadium in Bloomington, as seen in September 2019.
(Final score: Indiana University 2—UCLA 1). (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Imagine you’re a prospective MBA student trying to decide between attending Harvard Business School, or, say, Indiana University. For many, Harvard may seem like the obvious choice—it is Harvard, after all.  

But is it fair to give Indiana, or any other well-regarded state school MBA program, for that matter, more consideration? Many experts think so, and for some students, attending a public university’s MBA program may actually be a better choice, all things considered, even if it may not carry the “prestige” of some private schools.

Public schools typically offer a better value in terms of tuition costs, and for students who plan on sticking close to home or a specific city, they can have deep ties to an area’s industries and employers. In effect, whether an MBA student attends a private or public university may not matter all that much, experts say. 

“People perceive that the school is what’s going to make the difference for them, when, in fact, they’re going to make the difference themselves. People will be just fine, regardless of what institution they attend,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of the MBA admissions and career consulting firm mbaMission, and a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It doesn’t have much to do with the private or private nature of the institution.”

The top state-school MBA programs 

Shinewald’s main point—that it’s more about the individual student, rather than the institution—may not resonate with some students who are eager to get into top-tier Ivy League MBA programs. 

But when all the factors are considered—including tuition costs, living expenses, and future career goals—it may make more sense for an MBA candidate to apply to state school programs. 

There are many state schools with MBA programs that rank quite highly, and often right alongside, their private school peers. In fact, there are a handful of public MBA programs that earned a spot among the top 25 on Fortune’s list of the best MBA programs, as well as Fortune’s list of best online MBA programs

Those include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler school (which claimed the top spot for its online program and No. 17 for its full-time program), Indiana University’s Kelley school of business (ranked second among online programs and 21st on the full-time list), and the University of Washington’s Foster school (which ranked 11th and 18th, respectively). Meanwhile, three schools in the top 10 on Fortune’s list of the best EMBA programs are state schools, including the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, UCLA Anderson School of Management, and the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The above are just a handful of the many well-respected state-school MBA programs dotting the nation, each with its own potential strengths that may prove to be a draw for an individual student. 

“Each program really does have something unique to offer a student,” says Susan Haun, the director of admissions and recruiting for full-time, part-time, and online MBA programs at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis, which ranked No. 23 on Fortune’s list of best MBA programs.

Haun says that one of the Carlson School’s main draws is the fact that there are numerous Fortune 500 firms in the university’s geographic footprint, such as Target, Best Buy, and 3M. Being so close to large companies (and potential employers) creates “everyday opportunities to engage and build relationships, bring in speakers, work on projects, and network,” she adds.

By leveraging its geographic location as a strength, the University of Minnesota is similar to the University of Washington’s Foster School. The Seattle-based public university has deep ties to the tech industry there, and effectively pours graduates into hometown companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

Like Shinewald, Haun says that students may be better served by focusing less on the brand-name business school that they can put on their résumé, and instead concentrate on how an individual program may serve their career goals in the long run.

“The most important thing for prospective students to focus on is how the program is structured: What are [students] actually looking for in terms of career outcomes? Are there particular programs that have a depth of knowledge or expertise in particular fields that they might want to get into?” Haun says of the questions students should consider.

Advantages of state school MBA programs

There are other reasons that prospective MBA students may want to look at state school programs, aside from a potential curriculum fit. 

Chief among them is cost. Haun says that in-state students can take advantage of their status to get a substantial markdown on the overall cost of an MBA. That can make a huge difference for some full-time MBA students, who may be looking at tuition costs of more than $80,000 per year at schools like Wharton. Conversely, an in-state MBA student at the University of Indiana has annual costs of less than $28,000.

Another potential advantage that some state-school MBA programs may have over private schools is a wider range of program options, including dual degrees. For instance, the University of Connecticut allows business students to work with the university’s numerous other schools to offer a wide variety of dual-degree options, including earning an MBA along with a juris doctor (JD), a doctor of medicine (MD), a master’s in international studies, social work, and more.

These types of programs are something that many smaller private schools simply can’t match—though many are beefing up their offerings. Such flexibility and breadth are a “great benefit of being a larger public institution,” Haun says. “It offers more choices and options for students to tailor their degree.”

The name recognition of a state school can also carry weight in certain parts of the country. While having an MBA from Stanford or Harvard is likely to catch employers’ attention nationwide, in specific industries or areas—be it among the retail giants clustered in Minneapolis or the tech behemoths in Seattle—employers know they can expect a certain skill set and abilities from MBA grads spilling out of nearby state schools. 

So if a student knows that they want to work in a specific industry or for a particular employer after graduation, attending a geographically adjacent public MBA program may be the ticket in the door.

“You still have to actually do the work”

Both Shinewald and Haun emphasize that the public or private nature of an institution often doesn’t mean much to employers or to others in the MBAsphere. 

Amazon, for example, plans to hire more than 1,000 MBA graduates in 2021 alone and has actively recruited from more than 100 schools around the world—both private and public, according to a spokesperson. 

Shinewald says that the important thing for business school students to remember is that even if you do make it into the program of your dreams—be it at the university down the street or the one across the country—MBA students are still going to have to put in the work and earn their stripes.

“People used to think that if you just get into Harvard, then you’re on easy street,” Shinewald says. “But you still have to actually do the work.”