As an alumnus, the question I get asked most by prospective MBA students is whether attending Duke, in medium-sized Durham, North Carolina, will put them at a disadvantage compared to attending school in New York, Boston, or the San Francisco Bay area. It’s not hard to see why prospective students are concerned—these schools tout their locations and romanticize the idea of studying in one of America’s largest cities. But after comparing my experience with those who graduated from schools in those places and others, I’ve found the opposite is true: going to a school in a smaller city is far more beneficial.
Here’s why. When a student enrolls in a full-time MBA program, they are paying for four things: a quality education, recruiting opportunities, meaningful relationships with classmates, and a strong alumni network. When comparing how big-city schools stack up with others, it becomes clear that schools like Duke have an edge.
Let’s start with what you learn in the classroom. Although every business school tries to differentiate its curriculum, the differences can be negligible. No matter the school, every first-year student takes intro courses in accounting, finance, economics, statistics, marketing, strategy, and operations. Moreover, these courses often use the same case studies. Mention the infamous cranberry case from your operations class or the chicken contact lenses case from marketing to graduates from any school and you’ll elicit either an exasperated groan or nostalgic grin depending on their memory of it.
Elective offerings vary but not always by a wide margin. Mainstay courses such as Corporate Finance, Negotiations, and Marketing Strategy are found at every school. Other electives may not be as widespread initially, but schools will quickly replicate popular courses from other schools to stay competitive.
Education aside, the biggest concern prospective MBA students have when it comes to location is the impact it will have on recruiting. To assess whether this fear is founded, I encourage you to take a look at the recruiting data.
Do you think you need to be in Manhattan to get a job in investment banking? In a particular year I looked at, one school in the city sent 3% of its graduates to work at Goldman Sachs. But that’s lower than the 5.7% a school in the countryside a few hundred miles away sent there. Is your goal consulting? A Boston-based school sent 26 graduates to McKinsey the same year Fuqua sent 36. Is the tech industry your next move? Not surprisingly, 33% of graduates from one Silicon Valley school took tech jobs, but in the same year a school in the South 1,500 miles away matched that number. The big takeaway is that companies will find the best talent no matter where it is. If they can hire good people, they’ll make the trek.
Building meaningful relationships with classmates is one of the most important categories but can be the least valued, at least initially. Often, it is much later that students realize their classmates are the most willing group of people in their network to help them advance in their careers in both the short and long term. Based on many conversations with peers who went to big-city schools, the ties that bind classmates together there seem to be weaker than those at schools in smaller cities.
While there are likely many reasons for this—many major metropolitan schools tend to have larger student populations, for example—I also believe it is a function of location. Generally, students at those schools meet most of their friends during the first few weeks of school and then hang out together for the remaining two years. For entertainment, they turn to the city, frequenting off-campus bars, restaurants, and other venues and are less likely to organize and attend school events. In some cases, students who end up attending school in the same large city they’ve lived and worked in opt to hang out with existing groups of friends instead of with classmates.
At schools like Fuqua, almost everyone is new to town and arrives on campus ready to start anew. Since students have less competition from off-campus entertainment options, they attend more school-sponsored events and organize their own activities. At Fuqua, student-run clubs plan mountain climbing expeditions, white water rafting trips, leadership training overseen by the U.S. military at nearby Fort Bragg, weekly dinners, and the iconic Fuqua Friday tradition. These activities provide students with more opportunities to meet people outside of the classroom, where it is easier to build relationships and reinforce the ties that bind classes together.
And these student ties lay the foundation for a strong alumni network, for which schools like Duke are known. As a former university development director, one of the first things I learned is how to identify the alumni most likely to give back—in dollars, in volunteering, and helping current students get jobs. The key was to identify alumni that have a deep emotional connection with the school. Because schools in smaller cities have more opportunities to facilitate emotional connections between students and the school itself (as discussed earlier), alumni at these schools tend to punch above their weight. And we see this in the data. In survey after survey, even though they can be fewer in number, students at schools like Duke rank their alumni networks just as highly as students at big-city schools rank theirs.
Beyond the four categories of education, recruiting, classmate relationships, and alumni networks, students attending schools in smaller cities come out ahead in other ways. For example, the cost of living can be significantly lower. Attending business school and living in Manhattan for two years would have set me back $193,000 in 2014, when I graduated. While at Fuqua, I rented a bedroom in a house near campus for $312.50 a month while paying tuition that was about $20,000 less over two years. That translated into a smaller student loan and huge savings in interest since I am able to pay off more of my principal each month.
And finally, there is the intangible benefit of cultural exposure. Many MBA students will likely live, work, and attend school in the same handful of large cities. Most will never take a job in Durham, or the other smaller cities occupied by top business schools.
Truth be told, I probably never would have lived in the American South had it not been for Fuqua. And that would have deprived me of the many rich experiences that have shaped me. This includes the more whimsical such as my love for bluegrass music and discerning taste for barbecue and the more serious such as witnessing the impact the opioid crisis is having on Southern and Midwestern towns. All of these experiences have helped me grow into the person I am today, added depth to how I see the world, and made my MBA education more meaningful. Living in North Carolina was arguably the most important factor in shaping my two years of business school but the hardest to quantify. Nevertheless, experiencing life in a place that is different from where you are from or where you are likely to live post-MBA should be a part of every prospective student’s list of criteria when selecting a school because of the value it can bring to the two years of study.
So, to wrap up, here’s my advice: if you are considering business school or any form of higher education, think about what you want out of your educational experience and re-evaluate your options. If you find your list lacks schools in smaller cities, add a few, visit campus, and talk to students at those programs. You may be surprised how going to a school like Duke can change your life in more ways than you thought possible.