The advantages of going to a large business school in an urban area appear obvious to many applicants. After all, the thinking goes, big cities are where big business is done (not to mention the restaurants, the nightlife, the healthy population of old college buddies to ease the transition).
And a bigger school, it stands to reason, often means more of everything—more resources, more elective choices, more classmates with whom to network, and so on. And while you already know bigger isn't always better, isn't it hard enough figuring out the relative merits of New York vs. Chicago and lecture vs. case method without throwing in a slew of schools in towns you couldn't find on a map?
If that line of thinking sounds familiar—and admissions consultants such as Clear Admit's Graham Richmond say it's quite common—you might want to take a step back and consider that the experience of attending B-school in a town like Charlottesville, Va., Hanover, N.H., or Ithaca, N.Y. has its own upside. While many of those advantages are of the more intangible variety (how do you put a value on school spirit?) satisfied alums say the small-town, small-school experience can bring big-time payoffs.
Just ask Desmond Duncker, a Tuck MBA who wears his pride in his alma mater on his sleeve—or more accurately, his arm—in the form of a three-inch tattoo of Tuck's green-and-white seal. His degree landed him a job at investment bank Goldman Sachs, but even more important, he says, were two years of "unforgettable" experiences.
And if alumni giving rates are any measure, Duncker certainly isn't the only happy Tuck graduate out there. A hefty 65.1% of Tuck alumni donated this past year—more than double the giving rate at most top-ranked B-schools (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/2/06, "Great Gifts Come in Small Packages").
So what, exactly, is the small school advantage? In a word: community. Students say it's easier to form close bonds with classmates at a small school like Tuck or UNC's Kenan-Flagler, where each graduating class is kept to under 300 people, compared with larger ones like Harvard and Wharton, where the graduating class size is roughly triple that.
David Pyke, a Tuck professor and associate dean who has also taught at Wharton, says smaller schools are more conducive to student-faculty interaction, for the same reason. And while big schools aren't necessarily bad at fostering community, it certainly takes a more concerted effort. That's one reason many B-schools opt for some form of cohort system that breaks down a large class of first-year students into groups or learning teams of a more manageable size.
The more remote locations of small schools like Cornell and Darden can also be advantages—and not just because of the lower cost of living. The lack of outside distractions can give students a chance to immerse more fully in the B-school experience.
"Many of our clients tell us that they view the more rural programs as a chance to actually escape the 'buzz' of cities and the daily grind of the professional world," Richmond says, especially for MBAs who realize that B-school might be their only chance before retirement to live outside a major urban center. "Spending two years in a place like Hanover really gives students the chance to unplug and devote themselves entirely to academic study and MBA community events."
It can be difficult for urban schools to instill a sense of community when students don't live on campus and have all the diversions of urban life, including existing social networks. When students have made the commitment to pack up their lives and move to "the middle of nowhere," they're typically more open to forging new bonds with classmates quickly, in part because they have fewer options.
"It's really hard to disappear into the ether when you're a student here," Pyke says of Tuck. And while some students caution that the lack of anonymity isn't for everyone—imagine every bar in town as the bar where everybody knows your name—it's a lot harder to get lost in the crowd.
Forging a strong sense of connection between students and their school is also important when it comes to the alumni network. Small schools can't compete on size—Harvard Business School has 43,674 living alumni, Darden has 8,001—but alums say the strength of their network more than makes up for it.
"There is no alumni network on earth that is as tightly knit and well-integrated into the school as ours," says Bryan Simms, a senior vice-president at Lehman Brothers and chairman of the Darden Alumni Board and a trustee. "The message to first-years is that when you come to Darden, you're not signing up for a two-year program, you've signed up for a 40- to 50-year relationship with the institution."
In the end, it's important for B-school applicants to understand that choosing a full-time MBA program is about more than your future salary, it's about deciding how you'll spend two years of your life.
Miller is a reporter with BusinessWeek.com in New York.