The MBA Facilities Arms Race

In the ever-increasing competition among the world’s top business schools, there are several ways each school tries to stand out from the crowd.  For the longest time, the best schools could rely on reputation alone, and the flood of top students matriculating at these schools coupled with the incredible opportunities for graduates with top firms on the back end made for a nearly permanent lofty position in the rankings tables. 

As the demand for the MBA heated up, however, and the philanthropic investment in these schools climbed, each program found itself with plenty of money in their endowment pool to plow back into the program.  What has resulted is a facilities arms race that now extends well beyond the top ten or twenty business schools. 

Yes, even business schools you may never have heard of now have buildings and experiential education offerings that would rival the most expensive institution out there—public or private, and we can all thank the boom-boom bull market of the late 1990s for much of this explosion in fantasy facilities. 

Since donors’ gifts correlate with rising economic conditions, the upswing in financial markets during the new millennium (notwithstanding the great recession of 2008) has been astronomical.  As an example, every single public and private business school in the top 25 is now named for a donor, which was not the case just ten years ago.  A small endowment for even a lower-ranked top 25 school is now $100MM.  Harvard Business School’s endowment now tops three billion dollars. 

One might naturally assume that the schools with the most money would have the best facilities.

As it turns out, the Economist did a study of MBA graduates and asked them to rank their facilities and administrative support.  Granted, this study is highly subjective, since it relied upon students’ opinions about their own school to drive results, however it is interesting to see which schools came out on top---most notably, the schools with the highest endowments did not necessarily make the list of best facilities.  In fact, out of the top ten schools in the facilities study, only three schools were also in the top ten overall:  Darden, Tuck and Booth. 

But what does it mean to have killer MBA facilities? 

After all, a business school is not medical school, with operating rooms and cryogenic cadaver chillers.  Nor is it an engineering school, with wind tunnels and nano-tech clean rooms.  If you think about it, the only thing you really need for business school is a world class faculty, some desks in a climate controlled room and a good internet connection. 

Something interesting about the study was that the actual facilities themselves seemed to be less important to the respondents than the staff who ran them. 

It appears that accessibility and know-how of the business school employees played a large roll in how students felt about the overall educational experience.  Building out a well-trained and responsive staff has been just as prolific as building out a physical building, complete with the requisite stadium-style seating and high-tech projectors and smart boards.  Some recent data indicates more than 50% staff growth in many business schools over the past five years alone.  Apparently

When considering the superiority of a school’s experience for the student, one must also take the geographic location of a school into account. 

For example, Tuck offers underground tunnels to connect buildings together on its campus, which offers rather brutal winter weather.  This could have resulted in extreme gratefulness on the part of MBA students who valued not having to bundle up between classes in order to get around, and may have played into why the Tuck School of Business was the highest ranked U.S. b-school in the survey. 

The modern student is approaching almost epicurean status in many ways, so dining facilities and having a Starbucks or a bar and grill actually integrated into the building can go a long way towards someone feeling satisfied with their b-school experience (incidentally, the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia has both).  In the end, a balance between comfortable, modernized buildings and a friendly and available staff seem to be the right mix for how students perceive their school’s facilities.  Only an in-person visit can give you the real feel for both these attributes, so make sure you are thinking about a visitation strategy as application season approaches.