Zoom Classes. No Chance Meetings. Is Virtual Business School Worth the Cost?

Students in the M.B.A. class of 2021 have been hit particularly hard. The degree can cost $200,000, not counting lost wages.

By Paul Sullivan

Getting a master’s 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 the lecture. It’s about joining clubs that promote a professional or personal interest. Above all, it’s about the networking with fellow students as well as with the 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 socializing. 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 $100,000, with some closer to $120,000. That doesn’t include the cost of not working for two years. And the schools have not reduced their tuition in the pandemic.

Students in the M.B.A. class of 2021 have been hit particularly hard. They began their program in the fall of 2019, 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 canceled. The lucky ones kept their summer internships, albeit remotely. For others, internships were canceled. 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 like consulting, finance and technology have generally fared the best. Those who had hoped to join a start-up are still waiting, while those who had planned to go into fields that were disrupted by the pandemic — real estate, hospitality, even health care — are facing an uncertain spring.

“Is it worth $200,000, plus what I could have been making?” asked 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 are online and the only approved interaction is via Zoom. “No.”

Mr. Mullin is one of those 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 programs, with tuition under $70,000 a year. Columbia University’s graduate program at its business school costs $77,000 a year, with total costs over two years estimated at $235,000.

“The M.B.A. is a high-touch program, and covering our costs means we charge pretty high tuition,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist and senior vice dean of curriculum and programs at Columbia Business School. “I always teach my students the biggest cost of the M.B.A. 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, are 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.

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

Yale University’s School of Management adopted a hybrid model, where students could attend class on alternating days or just go virtual. David Arteaga-Caicedo, also in his second year of the program, opted to attend virtually, even though he is living in New Haven.

“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 that even the top-tier institutions cannot recreate virtually.

“The pandemic has taken the bulk of it away,” said 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.”

As to traveling 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.

Mercedes Li, who was working in health care consulting before going to Columbia Business School, said she was most disappointed about missing out on the international programs.

“I was hoping to take advantage of international connections and the travel programs our school offers,” she said. “I don’t see any of those happening before I graduate in the spring.”

Megan Reichert said she had chosen Haas over other business schools for two classes: international business development and extreme leadership, which ends with a hiking trek in the Andes. Neither has 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 fall 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 Berkeley — 3,000 miles from Chewy’s headquarters in Dania Beach, Fla. While she commended the company for its efforts to make the most out of a bad situation, she decided to return to consulting.

Networking is a big part of the M.B.A. experience. It’s the component that could pay the most dividends far after graduation. But in a virtual or socially distanced world, it has been stunted.

“The social component has been disappointing,” said Emma Finkelstein, a second-year student at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “If I’m a floating head on Zoom, I’m going to have a different relationship with my professors and classmates than if we were in social situations.”

Mr. Garg, who describes himself as introverted, said he had pushed himself to get out.

“It’s a lot about being proactive,” he said. “I’ve been grabbing coffee with people. It takes a lot of effort. There are some days you don’t want to do it. But then you realize you’ve been home for three days and haven’t seen anyone.”

And it’s not only less outgoing students who have been feeling excluded from the social aspect of business school. International students who haven’t been able to return to the United States and students from underrepresented minority groups have also been affected.

“Certainly, I would say the consequences of the pandemic for the types of informal networking that occurs on our campus could be more impactful for students who felt, for whatever reason, less included among their M.B.A. peers,” said Dr. Rockoff of Columbia. “These lost opportunities for networking and connections will have a significant impact on them.”

He said Columbia had plans for networking activities for the class of 2021 after it had graduated and the pandemic was under control.

For Mr. Arteaga-Caicedo, who is a Colombian-American and gay, being at Yale during the pandemic has opened his eyes.

“In real time, it made me see how something as huge as a pandemic can affect so many different people in such different ways,” he said. “I’ll carry that into my next year. I want to keep that awareness in mind.”

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