The newspaper today carried an article that questions the benefits of attending an “elite” school—the research is based on an Internet survey. I have some well-publicized reservations ((See my blog posting, “Wolf at the Door Part II,” 2008.See my blog posting, “Wolf at the Door Part II,” 2008.)) about research like this. Compensation is an imperfect measure of impact. And the study is based on undergraduate, rather than graduate, education and may be less relevant to MBA applicants. But the article cited some other work by serious academic researchers in support:

“According to research from Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton professor and Treasury official who used to contribute to Economix, and Stacey B. Dale at Mathematica Policy Research, attending one relatively elite college (like Harvey Mudd) rather than another (like Harvard) doesn’t much affect a student’s future income. Rather, it’s the student who matters. Hard-working, ambitious students will do well wherever they go. The opposite applies to mediocre or lazy students.” — Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates? By Catherine Rampell New York Times, July 20, 2009.

Suppose all this is true for MBA schools. Whether or not you like the research methodology of the Internet survey or the Krueger-Dale study, I have to say that the findings are roughly consistent with my experience as an educator. What, then, are the implications for prospective applicants to B-schools? Here are three possibilities:

1. For the really good applicants, the world-beaters, the anguish over the relative brand strength of a school is unnecessary. I talk to hundreds of applicants each year, all of them apparently bright and highly-motivated. A top consideration for them in deciding where to apply is the strength of one school’s brand over another’s. We shouldn’t discount the psychic rewards of a prominent brand, but for “hard working, ambitious students” you can’t monetize the brand. As I tell prospective applicants, very soon after you get the MBA the world stops asking you where you went to school and starts asking you what you can actually do. The best students accomplish a lot and get paid for it.

2. The radical idea that brand shouldn’t be very important to the best students does not suggest that you should apply through some process of random selection or simply go where the cost is lowest. The reality is that B-schools are not perfect substitutes for one-another. The choices you make do have consequences; the basis for your choice should be learning style. If you are “hard-working and ambitious,” you should seek to attend the school that will most transform you as a leader, to go on and do the great work of which you are capable—specifically, this means matching your preferred style of learning to the school’s style of instruction. “Style” covers attributes such as lecture vs. discussion; large vs. small classes; highly coordinated and engineered program vs. every professor for him or herself; theoretical vs. practical; very current and relevant insights vs. the eternal verities; etc. If brand is less important, then style becomes profoundly important. In short, you must figure out what is your preferred style.

3. Selectivity matters for the quality of the learning experience. The flocking of eagles is associated with better academic performance; if you are surrounded with “mediocre or lazy” students, you won’t be stretched. Another article noted, “… having lots of smart, motivated fellow students in a concentrated place provides something immensely valuable. ”We’re coming up with hard evidence,” said Gordon Winston, an economist at Williams College, ”that being surrounded by other bright, demanding students has a real effect on academic performance.” ((Tom Redburn, “Ivy League or Also-Ran, Does it Matter?” New York Times, April 21, 2002.))

The biggest implication from this kind of research is that applicants should focus on the fit rather than brand strength. So should schools. At Darden, we look to admit a class of “hard-working, ambitious students.” Our admission operation is pretty selective—and the trend is increasing. We look for people who are high performers, whose learning appetites match our style, and who have a zest for learning that is active, an ability to work in teams, an aspiration for leadership, a practical action orientation, prefer smaller classes, and above all, hold a serious respect for honor and ethics. And our graduates are well-compensated: the 2007 Forbes magazine ranking, which measures the return on investment for business school graduates five years out of school, ranked Darden #4 in the field.