Why the brand name matters

Taking on debt to attend a top business school involves some risk but is likely to pay off in future—for the best investment is usually in yourself

Question: I have been preparing myself to pursue an MBA later this year or early next year. When choosing a graduate school, should I attend the top school I can possibly be accepted to (despite the higher cost) or attend a cheaper, less prestigious school in order to have less debt when I graduate? I am new to this process and the first in my family to be going to graduate school, so I am not sure if it’s better to stay within my means or to push myself to a higher level, in spite of the price.

As with most business challenges, let’s start by looking at your goals. If you’re going to business school in order to learn new skills and gain a sense of personal fulfillment, then what matters is the quality of the instruction. Regardless of the institution’s reputation, they may feature high-quality professors who can become important role models and mentors (make sure to speak with as many current students and recent graduates as possible to get a sense of what the school is really like). If you can find an affordable graduate school that meets your needs, that’s the best bet.

However, if your goal is to leverage the degree into a high-paying corporate job, then the “brand name” truly matters. The idea of putting yourself into debt can be intimidating, especially if you’re not from a wealthy family. But the extra expense of a prestigious school will usually pay off, for several reasons.

Alumni network. Most high-powered executives simply won’t make time for an ambitious young professional—unless he or she is a student at his alma mater. Alumni ties can be powerful, and you’ll have access to networking events and informational interviews that would otherwise be closed to you. Research the top leaders you admire and see which schools they attended—and be sure to speak with actual recent graduates so you can get a realistic perspective about how active the alumni network is.

Peer network. The best schools usually attract motivated, ambitious students—so if you attend one, in 10 or 15 years your peer network is likely to be orders of magnitude better than it would otherwise be. People like to do business with their friends, so it’s extremely helpful if you’re making connections now with future CEOs.

Recruiters. Finding excellent job candidates can be hard—therefore, many top firms take the short cut of recruiting from a limited number of high-calibre schools, which have essentially done the screening for them. If it’s your dream to work for a particular company, call up their human resources department and ask them which schools they visit for recruiting. If possible, see if the school can connect you to an alumnus who got a job at that company so you can learn how the process works—and what your chances might look like.

Turbocharging your resume. There are certain powerful signals of professional accomplishment. If you become a Rhodes Scholar or attend Harvard or an IIM, that’s a permanent fact that most people will remember—and it will influence their perception of you. For the rest of your life, you’ll be marked as exceptional, because a high-quality brand has embraced you as one of its own. That alone is often worth the price of admission.

Taking on a lot of debt to attend a top school is a personal decision; like all investments, there is some degree of risk involved. But as gyrating stock markets and real estate prices have shown, the best investment is usually in yourself.

This post originally appeared on the Mint website on July 30, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.