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If an MBA is no longer worth it, what is?

Historically, the solution for mid-career employees was a workforce sabbatical called the MBA, but that model is no longer working, says Paulina Karpis.

If an MBA is no longer worth it, what is?
[Photo: Tai’s Captures/Unsplash]

A few years into my career at JPMorgan, I found myself in uncharted territory.

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I was scrambling to keep up with the advancements in AI, but the Heads of Trading were looking to me for insights about the impact of the new technology on their operations. Meanwhile, I was chairing a committee of 15 senior executives and navigating relationships with other Wall Street firms, where tens of millions of client dollars were at stake.

I remember thinking, “I could really use some guidance.”

Earlier in my career, I had received that guidance. As a new hire, I’d experienced a comprehensive eight-week training program, complete with executive Q&As, communication coaching, and connections with colleagues from around the world.

But a few years later, when I could have benefited from additional support, I was on my own. I was confused why there wasn’t any training for employees until they reached senior management—usually 15-20 years into their tenure.

JPMorgan is typical in this regard. Almost all of the chief talent officers I meet with say their Learning & Development programs have the same gap between entry-level hires and executives. After all, ​millennials tend to job hop​ every year or two—why invest HR dollars in training them?

Historically, the solution for mid-career employees was a workforce sabbatical called the MBA It worked for employers—they welcomed back new grads who had pedigree and were educated on business basics (​often on their own dime​)—and it worked for employees, too. They got a stamp of approval and the chance to swap their corporate jobs for two fun-filled, ​alcohol-infused years of parties​ and travel.

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But, that model is no longer working, a story clearly told by the ​multi-year declines in MBA applications​, even at top business schools. Many would-be students, myself included, decided the six-figure debt—not to mention years of lost earnings—​just wasn’t worth it​.

Our desire for learning didn’t evaporate, though. ​A full ​87% of millennials​ say they see professional development as very important to their careers. It shouldn’t be a surprise that in today’s business climate, people want to skill up, surround themselves with smart people, and prepare for an ever-changing future. But if B-school isn’t the answer, what is?

I’ve spent my post-JP Morgan career answering that question. After spending time with thousands of ambitious professionals and the companies that employ them, I believe the solution is co-learning. In short, co-learning is a combination of expert knowledge sharing, peer-to-peer mentoring, and collaborative practical assignments, all designed to provide professionals with the business know-how they need right now.

It’s a framework for business education that’s more relevant, more flexible, and more cost-effective than the traditional higher-ed model, and I believe in it so much that I founded and now run brunchwork, a company that offers a wide array of co-learning opportunities. 

What does that look like? Co-learning almost never involves textbooks or classrooms, and it always includes conversations with inspiring leaders and interactive challenges that let students simultaneously build their networks and instantly apply what they learn. Rather than reviewing case studies written two decades ago, a co-learning experience might look like a CMO speaking to a group of marketers about a current growth challenge, asking them to brainstorm solutions, then giving feedback on their ideas and presentations. Instead of having analysts study innovation theory, a Fortune 500 company might pair employees with startup players to workshop new product ideas. In either example, co-learning lets rising leaders bring these new tools and fresh ideas to work tomorrow, not two years from now post-graduation when the world has inevitably changed.

We’re already witnessing sophisticated computer models make financial decisions and robots automate jobs. So the most-needed skills for rising leaders, ​and those in shortest supply​, are the truly human skills that can’t readily be co-opted by machines, like ​communication strategy, emotional intelligence, and influence. These, as it turns out, are the most frequent topics requested by both employers and employees for co-learning​.​ ​Last time I checked, I didn’t see classes like that as the focus of the MBA coursebook. (The classes that are in there, like finance, accounting, and econ, are easily available online via Investopedia and MOOCs—massive open online courses—many with the price tag of $0.)

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Online classes don’t come with a network, but ​many executives I work with admit that co-learning surpasses business school in that respect, too. After all, the best companies and leaders champion diversity and inclusion. Co-learning workshops tend to attract people from a wide variety of backgrounds, while MBA grads are among the ​most privileged and least diverse populations​ in the country.

Of course, there are still employers today who want to see those three letters on a résumé among applicants. And if one’s career goal is to be a Director at McKinsey or a private equity executive, by all means, they should send in that check to Stanford. But it’s also worth considering that, at current rates, 50% of the S&P 500 ​will turnover​ in the next decade—likely replaced by forward-thinking, agile companies that don’t put as much stock in a business school degree as their predecessors did. Add to that declining enrollment and business leaders like ​Elon Musk​, Sheryl Sandberg​, and ​Mark Cuban​ publicly denouncing the degree, the MBA does not have the luster it once did.

Now, as the CEO of a startup, I’m dealing with challenges that I never could have imagined during my time at JPMorgan, like negotiating six-figure contracts, leading a 25-person team, and managing exponential growth for the company. Do I wish I had gone to business school? No. I wouldn’t have learned those things in an MBA program anyway. I’ve had more guidance from the peers and executives I’ve met through co-learning than a six-figure degree could have offered me—and better yet, my education isn’t stopping at graduation.


Paulina Karpis is the co-founder and CEO of brunchwork, a co-learning platform that educates 10,000+ millennial professionals annually in NYC, SF, and LA, and engages 100,000 online monthly.

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