Dilemma of the Month: Do I Need an MBA?

In a creative business endeavor which can help more: an MFA or MBA?

Back Q&A Jul 6, 2016 By Suzanne Lucas
I’m a 27-year-old high school English teacher, but my long-term goal is to open a performing arts school. I’m torn between obtaining an MFA so that I may bring a strong creative background to my future students, and earning a business degree so that I may learn how to run the school. I worry the MBA will be too broad but that the MFA will be less valuable. As a former hiring manager, do you have any advice on the most appealing qualifications?

First of all, I’m a huge believer in arts. I’m a writer, I teach a music class for children, and I strongly believe that a focus on arts and music makes all students better. I’m behind you 100 percent of the way. Now here comes the advice: Get the MBA.

Normally, I’m not into telling people which degree to get or not get. There are so many different degrees and life goals that I always tell people I’m not going to make that decision for them, but I’m making it for you. (You don’t have to listen to me, of course.) I’ve seen very artistic people who have great ideas but are unable to sustain the business side of things.

If you want to run a school, your focus should be on running it, not on teaching. You will probably do quite a bit of teaching, but that won’t be your primary responsibility. You’ll need to learn to do:

Marketing: You can’t just open a performing arts school and have students lined up around the block (unless you’re famous). You’ll have to publicize your school, put together brochures, maintain a website and make presentations around town to attract students. Marketing will play a huge role in the life of the head of a creative arts school.

Finance and fundraising: Money makes the world go round. It would be fantastic if your love for the arts would be sufficient to make the school run — but it won’t. You’ll have to know how to handle money, and not just a checking account. It’s not only about money in and money out. You’ll need to raise funds (unless you’re independently wealthy, but since you’re an English teacher, I’m guessing you’re not) and invest those funds. You’ll have to figure out how much money to charge for tuition and how to get money to cover the costs not covered by tuition. While parents talk a lot about wanting to give their little darlings music lessons, the true cost is generally higher than what they’re willing to pay.

Managing: You can manage a classroom, and a lot of management skills are similar to those a teacher would use. But running a business (which your school will be — even if registered as a nonprofit) is different. In your school, you’ll have to hire people, fire people, determine salaries, provide benefits, conduct sexual harassment training, etc. Employment law is a complex mess, and you can’t just jump into it with the idea that everyone will act like grownups. That’s a dream — not reality. You’ll have squabbles, pregnancies, illnesses, poor performance and parental complaints. You’ll need to figure out how to deal with all of that.

Is an MBA enough? Degrees are awesome. I’m a huge fan, but it’s not enough, which you know. You asked what a hiring manager would look for, which indicates to me that you understand you’re not ready to be the boss tomorrow. You’ll need to learn to do the school management part of things before you start your own school.

Additionally, It might be worth your time to volunteer at a nonprofit to learn the behind-the-scenes operation of an arts organization. Keep in mind that many different arts organizations exist with all sorts of roles and missions.

Remember, when you start your performing arts school, you’ll be starting a business. You’ll have employees who depend on you for their paychecks, their growth and their development. Training yourself to run that business will increase the chances of your success. And when you succeed, you can give children the opportunity to succeed. Few will become professional writers, dancers, artists or musicians, but the impact of that education on their lives will be immeasurable.


Kyle (not verified)July 11, 2016 - 11:41am

Great, wise response. It is encouraging to read straightforward answers like this. Seems to be the norm for "Evil Lady."

Anirudh Verma (not verified)November 3, 2016 - 11:23pm

An MBA degree is not only valuable to get thorough knowledge about the subject, it teaches you a way f interacting with people. Communication skills, interaction ideas and managerial capabilities are what everyone needs. Insightful article, 100% agreed!