The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times duel on the value of an MBA.

Media criticism.
Sept. 17 2007 6:13 PM

Dueling Trend Stories

The Wall Street Journal vs. the New York Times on the value of an MBA.

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Trend stories sweep over unsuspecting readers with the force of an ocean tide. Like their tidal cousins, incoming trend stories eventually reverse course and are carried back out to the sea of ideas by newer trend stories.

The interval between incoming and outgoing trend stories can be brief, but it's rare for a prestigious newspaper to have its trend story contradicted 24 hours later by the competition, as just happened to the New York Times. Its Sunday (Sept. 16) story, "Hedge Funds and Private Equity Alter Career Calculus," runs smack into today's (Sept. 17) Wall Street Journal piece, "The New Battle for M.B.A. Grads."

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The Times piece presents the anecdotal case that young people who don't have MBAs—and who have already found success in banking or hedge funds—don't want to go back to school to get an MBA. These hotshots regard even Wharton School and Harvard degrees as a waste of time and money, the story says.

A leavening of weasel-words—many, most, few—in the Times piece creates the illusion of trend. But depending on how you count, the story names relatively few people under 40 who are experiencing the altered "career calculus" promised in the headline. I count between four and six, and that's not enough data points to illuminate an Excel spreadsheet, let alone justify a business-section feature. Early on, the story declares, "As more Americans have become abundantly wealthy, young people are recalculating old assumptions about success," but six paragraphs later it undercuts that point by acknowledging that the MBA is more popular than ever, with twice as many of the degrees earned in 2005 than in 1991. This trend is one of those now you see it, now you don't affairs.

The Journal story builds a better scaffold to support the weight of its headline. It canvasses the nation to report that an MBA has never been a hotter ticket. The growing demand for MBA graduates combined with plentiful career opportunities have created an environment in which "students can afford to turn down even six-figure offers from investment banks." If you set the two stories side-by-side and read them literally, the Times holds that "many" bright young things with mere BAs from elite schools have skipped their MBAs to take lucrative offers from the finance industry, while the Journal is saying that the earning potential of an MBA convinces some who have the degree to turn their noses up at investment-bank bids. 

Instead of spotting a new career calculus revolutionizing Wall Street, the Times inadvertently shows how little has changed in the world of high finance. Of the young moneybags named in the Times article, at least three went to elite schools as undergraduates—Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Yale (the pedigrees of all the subjects are not given). Earning BAs at elite schools has always helped young people make the personal and professional connections to qualify them for the money industry's "fast track." The trend afoot is no trend. It's the status quo.

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