If you can't get in — or can't afford — a top business school, is an MBA from a lesser-known school worth it?
The answer depends largely on the student.
Those gunning for the top of the organizational chart, and without the networking connections and credentials of competitors from top schools, face a tough slog, but the right mix of experience, local connections and a degree that fills in some key resume gaps can help level the field, experts say.
"An MBA is not going to get you a job," said Marissa Martin, vice president of global research for DHR International, a Chicago-based corporate recruiting firm. "For someone looking at the C-suite, if you didn't go to Booth or Kellogg, it's just another degree" that doesn't stand out, she said, referring to the graduate business schools at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, respectively.
Martin isn't saying that only graduates of top schools make it to the top, but rather that the others, to a greater degree, need to use the networking contacts and skills they pick up to get into job opportunities where they can differentiate themselves and let those successes be their calling cards.
"Employers today are still very picky, and they want people who can come in right away and do the job," she said. "It comes down to experience and cultural fit, and the MBA is just icing on the cake."
It may be a chicken-and-egg debate to try to parse whether the degree makes a difference, but the Chicago area offers many options, including part-time and online programs at many under-the-radar MBA programs.
With fewer employers reimbursing MBA tuition costs, the smaller programs are touting their value in a crowded marketplace, offering niche degrees and increased job-placement services. Some are even catering to students trying to cut their commuting costs.
"Students are questioning the value more than ever," said Jon DeVries, director of the Marshall Bennett Institute for Real Estate at Roosevelt University's Walter E. Heller College of Business.
Benedictine University in Lisle expects to break ground this fall on an academic building that will house its College of Business, said Sandra Gill, the school's dean.
Construction of the building, scheduled to open in 2015, comes as the school works to offer more courses (including concentrations in derivatives trading and sustainable business) and highlight its value proposition.
In an interview, Gill emphasized the school's commitment to working with incoming students to offer credit for previous work experience or professional certifications, which can bring down costs.
Two years ago, the school began offering a "matinee" option for part-time students, she said, allowing them to take their two weekly classes during an afternoon and evening, instead of two evenings, so they can cut their commuting time and costs.
Benedictine plays up its "real-world" focus, a heavy reliance on local businesspeople for its adjunct faculty and a course that uses business strategy simulation games to compete against other business schools.
That focus is what resonated with Mark Kozak, an industrial chemist who started picking up a few night business classes at Benedictine in 2008 to help him better understand the financial and administrative sides of his job.
While there, he got the entrepreneurial bug, he says, and decided to finish the last two terms of his MBA as a full-time student while he started a consulting company that helps small chemical firms, including his former employer, with regulatory filings and other administrative tasks.
"You get out of it what you put in," Kozak said of the MBA experience, adding that while he might not see his adjunct faculty opining on the evening news, he didn't have to take out a second home mortgage to finance his degree.
Total tuition at Benedictine runs about $37,000, less than half the cost of top-tier schools.
At Robert Morris University, MBA graduates who want to change careers can come back for a second degree for $100 per course, said Dr. Kayed Akkawi, dean of graduate studies at the Morris Graduate School of Management. The deal is a nod to the value question in students' minds when they see that they may have to change careers several times as the economy shifts, he said.
At the small end of the spectrum sits one of the newest entrants to Chicago's MBA industry. Illinois State University's MBA program opened a Chicago weekend campus in February with 15 students in a shared alumni space the university had at 150 N. Michigan Ave. Total tuition tab: $43,200.
"We're kind of putting a toe in the water" as the program builds name recognition in the market beyond its estimated 30,000 alumni in the Chicago area, said B.J. Newmister, associate director of MBA program at the Normal-based school.
The caution is an acknowledgment that employers are cutting back on tuition reimbursement for education, he said.
Because the program is starting small, its niche is really that it has no niche. The school's goal is simply to deliver a solid core business degree with tenured faculty who ride the train from Normal to teach weekend courses.
"Doing our due diligence, we found that maybe some weekend programs weren't using their full, tenured faculty," Newmister said. "We wanted to stress this isn't a watered-down version" of the program.
Industry specialization has worked well for Roosevelt as it tries to find its niche, DeVries said, despite the wrenching real estate crash.
"Chicago's a real estate town. We came along and filled a gap the industry wanted," he said, referring to the school's decision 11 years ago to offer an MBA with a real estate concentration. Enrollment has more than doubled since the first year, to about 60 students, he said.
Sevara Sherman, 30, graduated from the program in 2008 as real estate values around the country were plummeting, real estate agents were leaving the field and deals couldn't be closed because of the mortgage crisis. Before entering the program, she had worked as an agent and at the Illinois Housing Development Authority but wanted to break into the commercial real estate private sector.
"A lot of our professors were working in the market, and they would tell us that a lot of people were getting laid off," she said. "It was a scary time for them too."
The initial job lead came from a friend, but she said she believes the networking and curriculum at Roosevelt made the difference in getting hired.
"Students get a lot of chances to get to know people in the industry," DeVries said. "I tell people, if they get through this program and don't know a lot of people, they've been asleep."
Only 15 Illinois-based institutions are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. They are Bradley University, DePaul University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois State University, Loyola University Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, SIU at Edwardsville, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Springfield, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Western Illinois University.
Some experts say accreditation is most important for students who expect to go on to a doctorate program or who may transfer to a region of the country where the school is unknown.
AACSB International is changing its accreditation standards to reflect a keener focus on more real-world curriculum trends, said Robert Reid, the organization's executive vice president and chief accreditation officer.
For accredited and member schools, go to aacsb.edu.