Is an M.B.A. Worth It?

Published: Jan 07, 2013

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It's the start of grad school application season and, like clockwork, the debate has rolled around again: is it even worth it to spend the next two years of your life pursuing the opportunity to put three little letters on your resume?

Once upon a time, the answer was a no-brainer: if you could get into an M.B.A. program, you did it, and came out the other side with a license to pick your job and print money.*

Nowadays, however, potential applicants are having to do the sort of cost-benefit analysis prior to signing up that their forebears in the field weren't expected to perform until they were actually on campus. Exhibit A: today's Wall Street Journal splash on the subject, whose headline advises us that "A Smaller Paycheck Awaits" today's "Newly-Minted M.B.A.s." While the overall tone of the piece—don't go to B-School!—is accurately summed up by that headline, it's worth noting that the piece itself is in no way an exhaustive look at the arguments for and against going to B-School, and that it focuses mainly on non-top-tier schools.

Here, then, are the key pieces of evidence the Journal marshals against the B-School experience:

1) There are too many M.B.A.s already

According to the piece, "U.S. schools granted a record 126,214 masters degrees in business and administration in the 2010-2011 academic year, a 74% jump from 2000-2001, according to the Department of Education." 

Witness the explosion of programs over the past decade as schools have sought ways to bring in revenue—a fact freely admitted by a Dean cited in the piece.

2) Companies aren't hiring M.B.A.s like they used to

One of the trends highlighted in the piece is that of companies training their own employees to do M.B.A.-level work, rather than competing for B-School talent. If true, that's a welcome change; people who know and understand their companies are precisely the ones who should be going on to lead them in future. 

3) M.B.A. pay ain't what it used to be…

Average income for B-School grads has dipped from its peak in the last decade—along with much of the rest of the economy. Meanwhile, prices have risen. 

4) …but the cost of an M.B.A has gone through the roof

While the piece cites average student debt in "households headed by people with student debt who attended graduate school and are under 35" as north of $80,000 that doesn't even scratch the surface of a top-tier M.B.A. program—those can come in at over $125,000 for two years, before things like living costs and two years of salary-less-ness are factored in.

While each of those points helps to build a convincing case against pursuing the grad school experience, it's difficult to escape the feeling that the Journal has buried the lede here: the subjects it profiles all attended programs that would not commonly be described as "top-tier." A more accurate headline for the story, then, would take account of the fact that graduates from schools outside the top tier—and especially those with thin professional histories (i.e. those who signed up with just a year or two of post-college work experience)—are struggling to find great opportunities in an economy clawing its way back from a terrible recession. And that's not really surprising at all.

As trite as it may sound, the decision to go to business school depends entirely on your own circumstances. Yes: there are some M.B.A. degrees out there that are barely worth the paper they're written on. But equally, there are still any number of reputable programs that have top employers beating a path to their campus each and every recruiting season—even if they're not hiring quite as many M.B.A.s as in years gone by.  Not only that, but there are people who still believe that the true value of education should be calculated in terms of what you learn, rather than what it helps you earn.

The bottom line: to the extent that it examines the question, the Journal is probably right; M.B.A.s aren't for everyone. But the key to figuring out whether it's for you or not isn't in any of the snippets of evidence presented in the piece. Rather, it's in a thorough examination of everything from your goals, priorities and finances to an honest examination of your skills and gaps—and the likelihood of making progress on any of those under a variety of circumstances. Those circumstances should include everything from considering internal training schemes at your current job, as well as the possibility of finding a new position, or simply taking classes at a local institution to develop new skills, rather than diving into a full Masters program.

The one takeaway you should get from the piece though: if you do decide to go for B-School, do your research. Find out which schools and programs are considered to be reputable and relevant to your chosen field (hint: find out if your target employer recruits there). And, yes, be prepared for the reality that you might not end up making significantly more money right out of the program—in fact, if that's the sole motivation for pursuing the course, it might just be time to consider a much more fundamental question: what is it that you want to do?


Read More

The Wall Street Journal: For Newly-Minted M.B.A.s, a Smaller Paycheck Awaits


*Or so we've heard.