One of the most common questions I receive from attendees at my seminars is this:

“Should I go to an MBA or MSRE program? What’s the difference and what’s a better fit for me?”

Before I get to the punch line, I’d like to give you a little perspective on where I’m coming from. I’ve taught real estate finance for over 10 years at a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs, and for a range of schools of differing quality and focus. I have served as an adjunct professor and have taught “real classes” (and by that I mean “for credit” with grades, homework, and tests and not simply a non-credit seminar) at CUNY (“Baruch College”), New York University, Columbia, Georgetown, Northwestern, and Auburn. While for the most part I’ve taught in MS in Real Estate programs, I did teach in the B school at Northwestern (“Kellogg”). While I don’t know what the record is for “most schools where one has served as an adjunct professor”, I’m probably in the running….

My general point here is that I’ve been around.

So after six universities as an adjunct and many, many more as a speaker on related topics (Excel, Argus, the capital markets, etc.), here’s my conclusion:

MSRE programs are often housed in schools of architecture or continuing education because they’re not really business programs; they’re programs for people who work with the asset as the primary means of creating value. This is the natural choice for students who want to build a building, sell a building, manage a building… the common theme is always the building. Discussions of broader economic issues, managing the enterprise, or corporate finance is almost non-existent. While the liberal arts side of me wishes that we would discuss these and other issues, the reality is that there isn’t enough time in the school year to cover other stuff.

On the other hand, the few real estate courses that exist at a B school usually treat real estate as a means to an end. The philosophy seems to be that real estate is fundamentally no different than any other investment or business; the goal is to apply the general principles that one learns in B school to the specific case. While I appreciate the intellectual concept of growing from the general to the specific, a lot is lost in the details. To discuss the built environment without any reference as to how you build a building is limiting. B school works for those who want to work in finance at a very large real estate company if you’re not actually dealing with the real estate, such as working in the CFO’s office at a REIT. Flying over the landscape at that level, you’re no longer talking about the assets. Everything is just a number on a page.

In short, I think it really comes down to this. If you want to work at the asset level, look at an MSRE program. If your interest is much higher up in the corporate structure (and/or one could argue, more abstract and not really real estate), then look at B school.

Of course, does any of this answer the question of should you go to graduate school at all? That’s a whole other conversation….