“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” — Yogi Berra

“Why should someone leave a big city to go to Charlottesville in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to get an MBA?” asked a broadcast reporter one morning.  In turn, I responded with a question, “When you eat out, what kind of food do you like to eat, and where do you like to eat it?”  She said that sometimes she eats on the fly at convenience stores or fast-food joints; but most of the time she likes to eat at restaurants with table service, white linen, and food made-to-order.  Then she asked what eating habits had to do with MBA education or with coming to Charlottesville.  My answer is the point of this post, and is the essence of the advice I give to MBA applicants.

At the heart of the reporter’s question is the presumption that MBA education is a commodity, that one program is just like any other. Big mistake. Seeing the field from the inside, as I do, reveals huge differences among MBA programs.

The AACSB tells us that there are more than 13,000 business degree-granting institutions in the world.  People hungry for education in business have enormous choice.  The suppliers of education in management are highly varied: different locations, different resources, different educational approaches, etc.  The field is highly segmented.  Students (and society) benefit from having this enormous range of choice, ranging from pure online MBA programs, to community colleges, to big city-center weekend MBA programs and to schools like Darden.  How should one select those few institutions to apply to?

Choosing a school is not unlike the problem you face in choosing a hospital for medical treatment, or in seeking advice in law, architecture, and engineering—and a kind of restaurant.  The answer depends on what matters most to you:

· Cost?  There is a vast range in tuition expenses across schools.

· Location?  Countries, urban/suburban/ex-urban, and quality of facilities render an enormous difference in the sense of place.

· Convenience?  Maybe you have put down roots and don’t want to travel very far. Or maybe you are flexible and can travel—or better yet, maybe you want to get “out of the box” of recent experience and go to a place that is less familiar and less convenient or conventional.

· Difficulty?  Expectations and standards for graduation vary. You should expect any graduate school program to be more challenging than an undergraduate program. But different schools challenge students in different ways.

· Stature?  Accreditation by international bodies and rankings suggest major differences among schools.

· Educational approach?  Passive versus active learning and teacher-centered versus student-centered are two dimensions of variation.

It is simply not true that MBA education is a commodity. One size does not fit all. Different people will choose to attend different programs. And vive la difference!

I told the reporter that in the broad field of management education, Darden is a “destination” school: because of the unique attributes of the school, many students are willing to make the journey to Thomas Jefferson’s “Academical Village” to obtain the special attributes we offer.

What sets apart “destination experiences” from more transitional or transactional experiences? Consider some examples. Le Bernardin is a destination restaurant in New York City.  There, customers go out of their way for a “total immersion” experience in dining: everything is highly engineered to transform the way you might think about food preparation and presentation, and about service—you leave not merely fed, but enriched by a fresh point of view about the world.  The Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are destination medical centers—they set the pace for service and results.  Frank Gehry of Gehry Partners is a destination architect producing destination buildings—Gehry’s buildings transform the way you encounter and occupy habitable space.  You would go out of your way to engage with leading firms such as Intel, Apple, Ideo, Boeing, and Schlumberger for solutions to special design and engineering problems.  Formula One, Disney, and the World Cup produce destination experiences that lift the human experience through inspiration and excitement.  Not everyone wants destination experiences, but these examples show that destination enterprises fill very important roles in society.

A destination school is similar.  Darden fits into this category because my colleagues on the faculty and staff are meticulous in their preparation and presentation of the learning experience.  We offer a transformational program, highly engineered not merely to convey knowledge (the “know what” stuff) but also to build practical skills (the “know how” stuff such as negotiating, selling, organizing and leading teams) and attributes of character (the “know why” stuff such as integrity, empathy, work ethic, emotional intelligence, social intelligence).  Our students rate the classroom experiences here very highly.   

I concluded my interview with the broadcaster by saying that how you decide whether to find your way to Darden depends on what you want in an MBA education.  If you want the equivalent of a new lens through which to view the world, you should seek a destination school like Darden.  One size does not fit all.