Choosing an MBA programme is a major decision that could affect many aspects of one's life. But just how much does life change for graduates of the most famous B-schools and those of smaller programmes? Is success really a matter of schooling, or is there something else there too?

Harvard, Stanford and Wharton will keep attracting the crème de la crème of brilliant minds from all over the world. But with Europe and Asia offering so much already, it would be a shame to overlook some of the obvious credentials many of those less visible programmes have to offer. Their assets include greater and more specific specialisation, a less competitive environment, interesting locations and wonderful curriculum flexibility.

How better to measure the benefits of top programmes versus smaller players than to compare the results of some of their graduates?

We have interviewed four Full-time MBA degree holders from Bulgaria, South-East Europe: two from top MBA programmes in the US; and two from smaller ones in Europe.

Kalina has graduated from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (ranked #9 in the 2014 Financial Times ranking); Veneta from the University of California Berkley Haas School of Business (ranked #11); Stefan from Jönköping University, Sweden (not ranked internationally but consistently ranked in the top three Swedish universities); and Milena from the Koç University Graduate School of Business, Turkey (ranked #67).

The first trait common to all four participants is that yes, they would definitely recommend their programmes to other candidates. And yes, if they could turn back time, they would make the same programme choice. So, in general, whatever direction their lives took after graduation, it was obviously in the right track for each one of them.

All four of them took on an MBA degree after acquiring some professional experience, although with Stefan that happened while he was still in undergraduate school.

Decisions, decisions

Surprisingly perhaps, none of them made their choice of programme based on cost.

Stefan of Jönköping University, Sweden admits he preferred to stay in Europe, and that took the Ivy League schools out of the list. He then researched a few European countries extensively and chose based on the programme's content, country, university reputation and style of education. “I do believe that location matters – my choice was Sweden and I couldn’t be happier. Sweden is an exceptionally innovative country and its approach to education is no exception to that rule. While still in Europe, Scandinavia is very different to the rest of the continent. Subsequently that “difference” translates into everything that happens there. The perspectives I encountered were very challenging yet intriguing and exciting.

Kalina’s motivation was at the other end of the spectrum: “I wanted to do something different; I questioned my current career choice, felt the need to “spread my wings” and see what was out there. An MBA across the ocean seemed the perfect way to do that, while also providing me with the sought-after academic challenges and related professional development opportunities.

Veneta based her choice on rankings and reputation, as well as recommendations from friends. Being a Ron Brown fellow influenced her final choice of UC Berkley Haas.

For Milena it was an easier decision. Turkey is Bulgaria’s neighbour to the south, and she had relatives in Istanbul. Location was a natural choice, but what attracted her to Koç University Graduate School of Business was its modern, more “American-like” feel and its great entrepreneurship opportunities.


Veneta at Haas was the only one who received a scholarship. Her view on cost however is that had she had to seek funding for her studies she would definitely still have considered it, since “an Ivy League diploma significantly increases job market prospects”. “Judging by my classmates’ positions 10 years after graduation, the answer is a resounding "yes": the investment was absolutely worth it!” Veneta concludes.

Kalina at Chicago Booth financed her education through a loan with CitiBank, its acquisition being aided by the University Finance Office. “If you get admitted, you are guaranteed a loan package to cover not only your studies but also living expenses, health insurance etc.,” she says.

Stefan and Milena did not provide information on how they funded their studies, but both believe that insufficient time has passed for them to see what their ROI will be.

Although the cost only adds to their glamour, top MBA programmes are indeed seriously expensive. But the investment is certainly worth making, for it is sure to guarantee a salary increase of  over 50% even before graduation.

The Financial Times’ 2014 ranking of business schools clearly shows that all schools in the top 60 would secure you a pay increase of at least 72%. Columbia, for example, which the Financial Times ranked as #5 in 2014, has a value-for-money ranking of 93, and would bring a salary increase of 119%. Tias Business School in the Netherlands, ranked #74 by last year, would potentially bring a pay rise of 84% and is ranked #13 in the value-for-money category. This type of comparison is over-simplified, of course, but it aims to show that better pay should not necessarily be a distinguishing point between branded and non-branded schools when it comes to ROI.

In general, smaller business schools are booming. A new analysis of The Economist shows that cheaper, shorter MBA degrees offer better ROI. The magazine’s new MBA rankings based entirely on ROI show that it is the lower-profile schools that will provide the best value for money. HEC Paris tops the 2014 list. It is considered the best value MBA world-wide. HEC, while prestigious, is smaller than the American Ivy League institutions. Graduates of the French school make enough extra money in less than two years to pay off their degrees.

An Aston Business School MBA degree also pays dividends. This UK-based school comes second in The Economist’s ranking. Aston students earn back nearly 65% of their tuition fees within a year of graduation.

IESE Business School in Spain admits candidates from poor countries who then land lucrative jobs in the West. MBA degree holders from the University of Hong Kong similarly see a 60% ROI within a year of graduating.

Other schools considered top-20 for value include Italy's SDA Bocconi, Grenoble GSB of France, ESADE Business School in Spain and Melbourne Business School, based in Australia.

Certainly, ROI alone will not attract business leaders to MBA programmes, as our four participants demonstrate. Candidates consider a range of other factors such as career transition, desired industry, geographical location, peer recommendation, facilities, access to the greater university, local business environment and international diversity.

Wharton is the most expensive programme. Still, it is this school’s graduates who are most likely to climb the furthest up the corporate ladder in the long run, The Economist's review concludes.

The Job

Three of our four participants chose to return to Bulgaria after graduation. Kalina is the only one who remained abroad, but in a third country: Microsoft offered her a job in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, two and a half months before graduation.

Veneta chose to return to her previous employer who offered her a new position a few months before graduation. Later, she did actually realise her dream of starting her own consulting company, before accepting the CFO position at the Trust for Social Achievement Foundation, based in Bulgaria. Although Veneta did not personally receive any job offers from the US, she attributes that to being an international student in tough times for the American economy. Her US classmates started receiving job offers during the second year of the programme.

Stefan returned to Bulgaria and took up the position of change manager at the headquarters of Société Générale in Varna, Bulgaria; his first management job.

Right after business school, Milena started her own investment advisory firm in Bulgaria, operating country-wide in the hospitality sector.

Did they feel their MBA degree played a part in them getting that job?

Kalina: “I wanted to work in Consulting, but after a summer placement on a consulting project I changed my mind. This is the great added value of a Two-year over a One-year MBA. You get to experiment with your “dream job” and find out first-hand whether you are really cut out for it; and it for you. The opportunities are endless however – the only limitation would be your own doubts. In my class I saw a film producer become an investment banker; many engineers becoming consultants; and a few military guys who went “corporate”, as well as a large number of people who started their own businesses. You have access to people with various backgrounds, extensive networking opportunities and a ton of industry knowledge and experience at your fingertips.

Veneta: “Having an MBA degree from UC Berkeley was definitely an advantage - both in terms of getting the job and in salary negotiations.

Stefan: “Currently I have a job that I love where I feel my MBA supports my good performance. I have the feeling my MBA was a positive contribution, because this is my first position where I entered a company directly at managerial level, rather than starting off at a lower position and growing within the company.

Milena: “I went to Koç with the sole purpose of learning how to start, manage and grow my own business. I had already worked at an international company in Bulgaria, and knew that was not a career I was interested in. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to start my own firm right after graduation, with minimal investment and optimal returns. It would not have been possible without my MBA and the skills and knowledge I acquired there, nor without the precious contacts. I met several of my present clients while still in Turkey. Now I represent a number of Turkish investors in Bulgaria. I almost felt an obligation to them to start this business.

An interesting aspect of the David vs. Goliath comparison in MBA education is that, ironically, the top programmes are no longer restricted to Ivy League Schools. Any school in the top 50 could be considered a top programme on a global scale, considering the myriad of programmes available worldwide. If we assume that Ivy League graduates still aspire to stellar financial jobs, that actually leaves a lot of potential for smaller, albeit prestigious programmes. In truth, the US is not the financial centre of the world. Europe is. However, Ivy League grads who are not originally from Europe are rarely interested in relocating to financial centres in Frankfurt, Zurich, Luxembourg or even London. They are mostly interested in staying in the States. That leaves a lot of opportunities for smaller programme graduates to explore various parts of Europe and developing Asia.


Perhaps the greatest value of an MBA degree is the extent to which it is applicable to real life. Our four participants are unanimous about the assets of a business education in that respect:

Stefan says his MBA education made him feel more structured in approaching matters. He adds “I find it easier to provoke myself to think outside the box. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I learned that trusting your gut feeling and not following rules is how business is really done. Lastly (and personally) it gave me a boost in self-confidence; I am quite capable and it is all a matter of proper perspective.

Veneta of UC Berkley Haas admits: “I definitely find the knowledge and experience I acquired in my MBA very useful in my day-to-day activities. As an example, I took classes in financial modelling, real estate investment and securitisation (analysing asset backed securities). Upon returning to Bulgaria my job involved launching some of the first Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) on the Bulgarian capital market. Still, a main takeaway from Haas was expanding my way of thinking.

Kalina of Chicago Booth: “I wouldn’t point to a specific subject as the most useful and relevant to my current job. There are many, including negotiation, managerial decision modelling and regression/statistics. What my MBA gave me was increased confidence and deep knowledge of myself, my strengths and weaknesses and how to market myself in order to be successful in my current environment. The brand name and the alumni network is the second most important benefit, I think.

Milena of Koç Business School: “My curriculum at Koç was very hands-on. I come from a small country where Turkey is a natural partner, so extending my network and using my two years in Istanbul to create a good client base for my future business was of top importance to me. I also found the course in professional managerial skills – communication, interpersonal and leadership development – to be exceptionally useful in practice. But generally, just being in Istanbul for two years, being part of that international environment and having all of that knowhow readily handed over to me added great value to the whole experience.

The above fully corresponds with the views most MBA degree holders hold about the value of their business education: networking, access to real-life business and the exceptional practicality of their studies.


International exposure is certainly one of the greatest assets of doing an MBA abroad. This plays a great part in the decision to apply.

Diversity is no longer directly related to size or ranking. If you think you have to go to a top tier school to mix and mingle with people from various countries and with diverse backgrounds, think again. Many European schools boast up to 90% diversity. The same goes for Dubai or Tokyo among others. In fact, it is exactly in those unsung places where you can feel diversity even more tangibly, because they are smaller and have a more intimate atmosphere.

Non-branded programmes often provide a very versatile experience to students, as the number of visiting professors is generally high and their background is more diverse. European programmes could have professors or experts from all over the continent visiting. They would be speaking English with different accents; would have dramatically different stories to tell; and would have had experience of working with and managing a very diverse crowd.

Schools are proud of their diversity, so they would be more than happy to provide you with information on their student body’s cultural and international diversity. Their websites offer detailed information on efforts to promote and encourage diversity, such as clubs like Asia Business Club, Black Business Students Association, Jewish Business Club, etc. You can find those at UC Berkley Haas but they are also at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, ranked #88.

The whole David vs. Goliath debate central to MBA programmes for the past few years is primarily based on ROI. However, the main benefits that one extracts from an MBA education go well beyond that. Whether it is a large school or a smaller programme, a good degree will help you discover your strengths, hone your natural soft skills and prepare you – as well as it is viably possible – to become a valuable asset to the economy, be it as a member of the corporate world or a business owner. So, as Stefan said, “it is all a matter of proper perspective”.