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The Soaring Price of Business School Networking

airplaneA New York Times article this weekend examined the growing number of trips and other “lifestyle experiences” that now compete with academic ones as part of the MBA program at many leading business schools. Even those that don’t offer any form of academic credit can be viewed as valuable networking opportunities that can help position students for jobs upon graduation—worth their steep price tags in the eyes of some.

As an example, the Times story lead with a February ski trip to Park City, Utah, that about a third of the MBA class from the University of Texas as Austin’s McCombs School of Business went on. The three-day trip, planned by a student-run group called the Graduate Business Adventure Team, was advertised to cost about $1,000, though final costs may have ended up higher.Sean Pool, who is financing his MBA degree largely through student loans, opted to sit out the ski trip, though he acknowledge that he realized that in doing so he might be missing an opportunity to bond with fellow students. “Cliques at McCombs are generally diverse and accepting, but there is to some degree a socioeconomic element to the way cliques fall out, particularly for groups who have the financial means to travel for pleasure several weekends each semester,” Pool told the Times.

The increasingly prevalent trips offered as part of the MBA take many different forms, from purely leisure to career-focused and curricular travel. The latter, because it is for educational purposes and students receive credit as part of a class for it, can be financed with student loans, the Times reports.

Examples of career-focused trips that don’t carry academic credit include the Career Treks offered at many leading schools, usually with a focus on a particular industry—like private equity, consulting or banking—or a particular geography—like San Francisco or Chicago. Often, these give participating students an opportunity tour and meet with companies, sometimes providing a valuable leg up in the job search process.

Ming Min Hui, a 25-year-old first-year student at Harvard Business School, went on just such a trip, called WesTrek, over her January break. Sponsored by the TechMedia Club, WesTrek is designed to give students an insider’s look at the tech industry in the Bay Area, and Hui and close to 200 of her classmates visited 90 companies in the course of the three-day trip, including Google, Facebook, Tesla and several venture capital firms, the Times reports.

Already in her first year, Hui has been on eight such not-for-credit trips, including hiking the Inca Trail in Peru over spring break. “An M.B.A. is very different from a law or medical degree; the M.B.A. is designed for networking reasons,” she told the Times.

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer acknowledges that the role of trips has changes significantly since he started teaching 35 years ago. “The social aspects of business school have become more prominent over the last decade — there is no doubt about that,” he told the Times. “Students go to Vegas and take over a Southwest Airlines plane, they go to the Sundance movie festival, and some of them rent houses on Lake Tahoe.”

Even students who don’t have the financial means to take part find often a way because they view the bonding opportunities to be worth it. Some accrue credit card debt, and others take on jobs to fund the trips—believing that doing so will help them land lucrative jobs later.

One such student, Samantha Joseph, who graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2009, worked as a teaching assistant to help fund trips to nine countries during business school, most of them not for credit. “If you want to be a global leader in any industry, it’s important to see how the business world works and runs in other countries,” Joseph told the Times.

McCombs student Pool, who has chosen to focus his time and resources on other things, maintains that while they may yield connections, the trips are not essential to success at business school. Proof positive: he has forgone the expensive trips and nonetheless secured a summer internship at an investment bank. “Networking is great, but it’s not the No. 1 reason to come to business school,” he told the Times. “And if you are spending a lot of time, money or resources doing it, you are probably doing it all wrong.”

Read the complete New York Times story, “In B-School, Is That a Syllabus or an Itinerary?”