Zoom classes. No chance meetings. Is virtual business school worth the cost?

Some students still able to clinch internships but many bemoan loss of interaction amid pandemic

Mr David Arteaga-Caicedo, who is in his second year at Yale University’s School of Management, has opted for virtual classes. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Getting a master's degree in business administration is about a lot more than book learning.

It's about the conversations in class and the chance meetings before and after lectures. It's about joining clubs that promote a professional or personal interest.

Above all, it's about networking with fellow students as well as with corporate recruiters and successful alumni who come to campus - all in the hope of getting a career boost.

It's not about sitting alone in your apartment and staring at a Zoom screen for classes, networking and socialising. Another virtual happy hour, anyone?

And all this comes with a substantial tab.

Many of the top business schools calculate the total annual cost - counting tuition, room and board - at more than US$100,000 (S$132,600), with some closer to US$120,000. That doesn't include the cost of not working for two years. And the schools have not reduced their tuition fees during this coronavirus pandemic.

Students in the MBA class of 2021 across the United States have been hit particularly hard. They began their programme in the autumn of last year, and all went as usual until midway through the spring semester, when classes went virtual and the long-planned international trips that typically populate the semester were cancelled.

The lucky ones kept their summer internships, albeit remotely. For others, internships were cancelled. And this school year has been more of the same.

As to their job prospects at the end of all this? Students who want to work with large companies in traditional fields such as consulting, finance and technology have generally fared the best.

Those who had hoped to join a start-up are still waiting, and those who had planned to go into fields that were disrupted by the pandemic - real estate, hospitality, even healthcare - are facing an uncertain spring.

"Is it worth US$200,000, plus what I could have been making?" asked Mr Terence Mullin, who worked in investment banking and private equity in Chicago before enrolling at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, where all the classes now are online and the only approved interaction is via Zoom.


Mr Mullin is among the students who had hoped to change careers - to online gaming, in his case - and he has yet to receive an offer.

The cost of business school has long been high. Haas, as part of a public university, is on the less expensive end of top programmes, with yearly tuition costing under US$70,000.

Columbia University's graduate programme at its business school costs US$77,000 a year, with total costs over two years estimated at US$235,000.

"The MBA is a high-touch programme, and covering our costs means we charge pretty high tuition," said economist Jonah Rockoff, who is senior vice-dean of curriculum and programmes at Columbia Business School.

"I always teach my students the biggest cost of the MBA is the opportunity cost of giving up two years of income and career advancement."

Academics, which students in the past would often say was the least of their reasons for going to business school, is the area where the schools have had the most control in translating in-person learning to virtual or hybrid models.

Students said the effectiveness depended as much on the course as how it was delivered.

Mr Mullin said his negotiations class at Haas was probably better online, since it involved just two students in a Zoom breakout room. But larger, core classes have been tough.

Said Mr Vishesh Garg, a second-year student at Columbia who moved from India to attend the programme: "Keeping your concentration going for three hours on Zoom, particularly if you have other classes, is hard." He has opted to attend class in person whenever it is offered, he said.

Yale University's School of Management has adopted a hybrid model, where students can attend class on alternating days or just go virtual.

Mr David Arteaga-Caicedo, also in his second year of the programme, opted to attend virtually, even though he lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale is.

"Part of the beauty of going to class was the serendipitous encounters," he said. "Here, you'd go to class and then have to leave immediately."

Those spontaneous encounters are something even the top-tier institutions cannot recreate virtually. "The pandemic has taken the bulk of it away," said Mr Kerwin Charles, dean of Yale's business school.

"I've said to second years that we will do all we can in a remote context or a remote mechanism to carry on those activities. But they're not chance encounters."

When it comes to travelling for class work or with classmates - which many students cite as crucial to their selection of a business school - that is not happening. Nor are the interactions with international students - many of whom went home in the spring and have struggled to return.

Ms Megan Reichert said she had chosen Haas over other business schools because of two classes: international business development and extreme leadership, which ends with a hiking trek in the Andes. Neither happened.

But she said she had gained some unexpected skills as one of the leaders of the spring project for her international business development class, in which the students advised a Chinese corporation.

"I was in a position to say this is not what I or anyone on our team signed on for, but nor was it what the corporation had signed on to," Ms Reichert said.

"I just reshaped the project entirely around what people needed. It was a very unique opportunity to lead through what was very disappointing, frustrating news."

Students who went to business school to change careers are, in some cases, finding that the pandemic has put up new challenges.

Students who took offers from larger companies last autumn for their summer internships may end up in a better position than those who waited until the spring, when smaller companies and start-ups usually come calling.

Mr Arteaga-Caicedo had been trading metal derivatives in New York before going to Yale. He wanted to go into consulting and secured an internship before the pandemic hit.

He did an internship at a consulting firm virtually and has already accepted a job offer for next year.

"I feel very fortunate," he said. "The pandemic has forced me to think about my priorities as well. I've been able to step back and pause and ask, 'What do you really want to do?'"

Ms Reichert had the opposite experience. She interned at Chewy, the pet food website, this past summer, but she did so from her parents' home in Spotsylvania County, Virginia - 1,600km from Chewy's headquarters in Dania Beach, Florida.

While she commended the company for its efforts to make the most out of a bad situation, she decided to return to consulting instead.

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