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The HISPANIC BUSINESS Best Schools 2000

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September 2000 - In some ways, selecting a law school or business graduate program is more difficult than deciding where to study toward a bachelor's degree. Unlike their pre-undergraduate counterparts, prospective law and business students must consider immediate career goals. And while cost is an issue when selecting a four-year college or university, it's often more so when deciding where to earn a law degree or MBA, particularly for students who already have school-loan debt.

Hispanics typically have additional concerns, such as minority recruitment and retention among both faculty and students and support services such as student associations and mentoring programs. Accordingly, HISPANIC BUSINESS took these considerations into account, in addition to traditional criteria such as academic and faculty stature, when compiling this year's directories of the Top 10 Business Schools and Top 10 Law Schools.

As with all such lists, the resulting directories should not be viewed as the final word on the subject. Deciding on a law or business school is, in the end, a personal decision. As such, experts urge prospective students to consult a variety of resources. The American Bar Association, for instance, downplays the significance of rankings when evaluating law programs, precisely because they fail to take personal circumstances into account.

Aside from magazine rankings, there are general guidelines that apply to most, if not all, prospective law and business students. In the case of MBA programs in particular, the first distinction to be made is between full-time and part-time students, according to Roxanne Del Rio, director of admissions at the University of Dallas Graduate School of Management.

Because they typically work full-time and have tight schedules, part-time students should consider prospective graduate programs in relation to where they work and live, advises Ms. Del Rio. For the same reason, part-time students should seek out program flexibility whether courses are offered in the evenings, on weekends, and online; whether professors are supportive in the event classes are missed on account of work or family obligations; and whether students can return and get the courses they need if an entire semester has to be missed because of other commitments.

Full-time students, on the other hand, would do better to consider factors like professional internship opportunities, career placement services, and alumni associations that provide networking and mentoring opportunities, according to Ms. Del Rio.

Part-time and full-time students alike should make certain that the grad program they choose has been regionally accredited, or, in the case of a foreign college or university, accredited by the ministry of education in the host country.

Given the expense of most programs, financial aid is another important consideration, regardless of one's status as a part- or full-time student. The National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA) is uncommon in that it offers scholarships to both part- and full-time business students. More information is available on the group's Web site, www.nshmba.org.

NSHMBA Executive Director John Honaman says a number of top-flight MBA programs offer full scholarships, many specific to Hispanics and other minorities. Of course, many are contingent on Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT) scores and academic performance.

For Hispanics researching business programs, he has three suggestions: network with current MBA students through a local NSHMBA chapter (the group has more than 20 nationwide); seek assistance through admissions offices before submitting an application, since many have volunteers who can explain the dos and don'ts of application preparation; and take a GMAT prep course.

"Our enrollment numbers are lower than they have to be because of lack of preparation," says Mr. Honaman.

He also advises students to define their career interests an important consideration when deciding where to study toward an MBA. Some programs emphasize finance, for instance, while others are weighted toward marketing and other subject areas.

"The question is which program is going to meet your needs," says Mr. Honaman.

Alice Velazquez, president of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) and chief operating officer of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corp., says the same concept applies to prospective law students.

"Any person entering law school should give consideration to long-term goals," she says.

Generally speaking, those fortunate enough to be accepted by a traditionally prestigious law program such as Harvard's or Yale's should probably make a point of completing their studies there, according to Ms. Velazquez. The fact is, the best professional opportunities are reserved for graduates of such programs, she says.

"The more prestigious the law school, the better and when I say prestigious I mean the traditional top-tier schools, not ones that I feel are necessarily the best. To say otherwise would be a disservice to young people about to enter the profession."

HNBA president Alexander Sanchez agrees. "Go to the best school you can get into, period. Worry about the rest later," he says, referring to concerns about Hispanic representation among students and faculty. "Get your education in the bank, get in with a good firm, and then you can worry about improving opportunities for Hispanics."

There are exceptions, however. Aspiring lawyers intent on a career in public service, for instance, probably wouldn't be well served in shelling out a small fortune for a J.D. from an Ivy League school, according to Ms. Velazquez.

"In that case, a top-tier law school will only put you in the red for 15 years," she says, highlighting the fact that government attorneys usually are paid much less than their counterparts at prominent law firms.

"If you're not sure which direction you want to go in and you want the option of a prestigious federal clerkship or working at a top-tier law firm, go to a top school and make that investment," she says. "Many white-shoe law firms pay starting salaries in six figures, and that will go a long way toward allaying worry over school loans."

Ms. Velazquez admits that traditionally prestigious law schools often have a very limited Hispanic presence, which, she says, can be difficult on Hispanic students. In the future she would like to see minority representation given more consideration when mainstream law school rankings are compiled.

Ultimately, professional achievement, as opposed to law school pedigree, is a lawyer's greatest professional asset, says Ms. Velazquez. And the tools to become a successful attorney are widely available.

"Law school tends to be generalist by nature. It's about developing a way of thinking, not the acquisition of a specific knowledge set. The best ones teach you to become a lifelong student, and you don't have to go to Harvard for that," she says.

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