The MBA Investment: Demographics, Culture, Language, Citizenship and the value proposition


Last week I received an email from a GMAT test taker which read in parts as follows:

“We wanted to ask you out for a drink and learn your opinion on the MBA value proposition for potential students like us.”

The economic times could be better. People are nervous about leaving their jobs to pursue another degree. There is lots of anxiety over the “MBA Decision”. Even so, increasing numbers of Canadians are interested in pursuing an MBA. A majority of GMAT test takers are now outside the United States. Business education is  on a growth trajectory in India and China. To capitalize on the demand for “business case studies”  in Chinese MBA programs, Ivey has employed Chinese students to translate the cases. (The Indian School of Business uses cases  from Ivey.) Some schools are gong further and exporting their MBA program to other parts of the world. One of many examples is the Schulich presence in India. It’s  clear  that the “Business of the MBA” is a growing business. There is no shortage of MBA programs.

After 35 years of helping students achieve their “academic goals”, I thought it I would share a few thoughts on how people might consider achieving their life goals.

Now for the record, the “us” in the email  included one Canadian citizen and one U.S. citizen. What difference does this make? More than you might think. Read on.

What you do is  NOT who you are!

There is a difference between having a career and having a life. In some cases a career can make your life. In some cases your career can destroy your life. Your concern is your life and your happiness.

Therefore, if it would make you happy to pursue an MBA then you should pursue an MBA.

That said, I suspect the question in the email was more related to “career goals”. Will an MBA enhance your career? Is an MBA a good investment in your career? Will it improve  your employment opportunities? Will it improve your entrepreneurial opportunities? Will it improve your networking opportunities?

The short answer is: Maybe.

It depends on how you approach the decision. I would suggest that you should approach the decision based on two broad categories of factors:

Category 1 – Factors that are based on “Who you are”

Category 2 – Factors that are based on “Global trends”

Of course, some of these factors will overlap.

Category 1 Factors – Who Your Are

What kind of MBA program is it? There are many different kinds of MBA programs. They range from the traditional “General Management”, “Finance”, to the niche programs (example MBA in health management). You want to select an MBA program that is consistent with your interests and talents. (If you feel sick when you see numbers, you would NOT want an MBA in finance.)

Will you be happy in the environment that the MBA program offers? Life is competitive. You will never do as well as the person who likes the program better than you do. Therefore, it is essential that consider the environment, the courses, the location, the professors and anything else that think might contribute to your happiness or unhappiness in the program. If you are unhappy in the program you will not do as well as people who like the program.

Category 2 Factors – Global Trends

What are the demographics? The economist David Foot believed that demographics explain everything. Any discussion of demographics would include a consideration of:

1. The growth of the size of general populations; and
2. What the demographic of the population is.


The United States has a large population but an aging population. Statistics suggest that the United States has a growing population and that the growth is in  what used to be considered to be the “minority groups”. (Message to the Republican Party – Look out!)

China has a large, aging and fairly homogeneous population.

India has a large, growing and young population. (Did you know that 2/3 of he population in India is under the age of 35?)

The age of a country’s population has huge implications for its tax base and ability to provide services.

How developed is the economy?

North America and Western Europe have very mature economies.  This means that they have mature markets, bureaucratic democracies, and slow growth.

The rest of the world (things go in cycles) are less mature and can do things faster. For example China  was able to build a complete  new subway line in time for the Beijing Olympics. The city of Toronto can’t even make a decision on whether to expand (the need is obvious to anybody) their existing subway line. To put it simply: North America has become a bit of a “relative economic backwater”.  Democracy is a great thing. It’s just that too much democracy means that it’s hard to get anything done.

To put it simply: The rest of the world is developing and growing more quickly than North America.

As goes  population growth, so goes economic growth. As goes economic growth, so goes the growth of individual  businesses.

This implies that business must have a strategy for growth outside North America. Furthermore, that strategy should be a major factor in corporate planning.

Any business strategy for outside North America should include:

– the need to be physically present in the country
– the need  to understand the culture
– the need to understand the language
– the need to network with government, business, residents …

On the issue of language consider the following:

There are more people in China learning English than there are people in England (according to a recent HSBC ad)!

Culture is very much a function of language. Those Chinese who learn English will better learn and understand North American culture. This gives them a tremendous advantage over North Americans who speak only one language. Success in Asian markets will require fluency in Asian languages and culture. In order to achieve  this, one must go   to these countries and spend time in those countries. (I am reminded of the book  “The Charm School” by Nelson Demille. Mr. Demille understood the relationship between language and culture.)

This  is an argument for pursuing your MBA outside North America. I was at a recent MBA Forum. There were a number of schools represented from Europe. There were also schools represented from India and China. If the future  of business is in India, there is an advantage to doing an MBA in India. (On this point I recently did a post describing the Indian School of Business.) Think of the connections you could make. Think of the value that you could add to your company by having a cultural fluency with India or China.

Asians students come to North America partly for the academic education and partly to absorb the culture. Isn’t it time for North Americans to go to Asia for  the academic education and to absorb the culture? Cultural  fluency is a strong competitive advantage!

Why it is particularly important for U.S. citizens to study abroad!

To put it simply: studying abroad may be the only chance that U.S. citizens have to experience the business environment outside the United States. Since 911 the United States has adopted disturbing trends of preventing both capital and people from leaving the United States. The combination of the FBAR (“Foreign Bank Account Reports”) rules, FATCA (“Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”) and citizenship-based taxation have made it very difficult for U.S. citizens to obtain employment, be accepted as business partners and shareholders in foreign companies and generally survive.

In other words U.S. citizens can’t easily survive  outside the United States.

What if a U.S. citizen does  leave  the  United  States? If they keep their money outside the U.S. they are subject to special reporting requirements that generally provide  strong incentives  for them to keep their money inside the U.S.

In other words it is has become increasingly difficult for U.S. citizens and/or their money to survive outside the U.S.

What? Isn’t the United States  a free country?

The root of the problem is that the United States is the only country in the world that taxes its citizens when they reside outside the U.S. (This also means that the U.S. actually levies tax on residents of other countries.) The tax requirements are onerous. Furthermore, U.S. citizens are required to report the details to the IRS of:

– all their non-U.S. bank accounts over which they have signing authority;  and

– all non-U.S. business arrangements (partnerships and shareholders)

This information reported often includes the financial details of non-U.S. citizens. You can imagine how non-U.S. citizens feel about that. In FATCA (no pun intended):

FBAR, FATCA and Citizenship-based taxation have combined to make it such that:

U.S. persons living outside the U.S. are no longer popular as:

– employees
– business partners
– shareholders
– even marriage partner

Nobody wants anything to do with them.

(At least one Canadian adoption agency has begun warning potential parents about the risk  of adopting U.S. born children.)

The bottom line is that it is difficult for U.S. citizens to live a normal  life outside the U.S. (Hence, a  form of people control.)

It  has gotten so bad that European banks are closing the bank accounts of U.S. citizens (they just don’t want to communicate with the IRS).

The new U.S. FATCA law makes it very difficult for U.S. citizens to keep their  money outside  the U.S. (Hence, FATCA is a form of capital control.)

As you can see, U.S. citizens are subject  to special disabilities. Hence, for U.S. citizens, doing  an MBA outside the U.S., might be your last best chance to see the world! It seems clear that U.S. citizens are now at a disadvantage in competing for business and employment opportunities outside the U.S.