Is an MBA Worth It? Here’s Your Checklist
7 Steps to Assess Business School Value
- Block out the noise
- See the big picture
- Consider your values
- Look at costs and financial aid
- Know that brand matters
- Adjust by location
- Define your priorities
Step 1: Block out the Noise
Young professionals have always evaluated the worth of embarking on a two-year MBA program. This value analysis typically happens well before they commit to the MBA application process.
Media outlets from Forbes to the Wall Street Journal sometimes promote a one-size-fits-all approach when speaking about whether the MBA is worthwhile. What the media writers often have in common is that they don’t break down the MBA decision according to the individual’s priorities, aspirations, and desired MBA programs. For example, an MBA from a random, unranked university has nowhere near the same value as an MBA degree from Harvard, HBS.
Step 2: See the Big Picture
Most top MBA applicants are, by nature, diligent and analytical. So, logic suggests MBA aspirants would always calculate return on investment (ROI) based on costs, tuition, short-term salary potential, etc. Yet, in our two decades of experience, we see that top-tier MBA applicants usually do not run such calculations.
Here’s why. So many variables of the “Is the MBA worth it?” analysis are qualitative. For example, you can’t assign an absolute value or number to the networks and prestige afforded by an elite MBA brand.
In fact, the spreadsheets we have seen across thousands of applicants aren’t about the ROI of MBA programs at all. For example, applicants rank HBS or Wharton a “10” for career potential. Our client pool focuses much more on “Do I have a chance of getting in?” or “What are my admit odds for a top 10 MBA program?” They are not at all interested in a cost/ benefit analysis of the MBA degree itself.
Step 3: Consider Your Values and Aspirations
Most high-performing MBA applicants we work with are aspirational and focus on the qualitative upsides of the MBA experience. “I think the conventional reasons for getting an MBA are definitely beneficial,” says a recent Stanford GSB admit with whom we recently worked.
“But I think I am just most drawn to the personal development I’ll get out of the degree. As with many type-A students and high-achievers, we never stop to evaluate the reason why we work so hard.
The MBA program will be a great time to reflect on my sense of purpose and motivation for why I do things. Hopefully, that will also help me refine longer-term career goals.”
Business school aspirants know that top MBA programs have a wealth of resources to ensure they will stay at the forefront of industry developments and that the degree can help them adapt easier in the future. Sara Cherlin Diniz, a mid-career professional who holds an HBS MBA degree, shared:
“There’s no doubt that my Harvard MBA enabled me to seamlessly pivot careers… TWICE. The brand name credentialing, the life-long career support resources, and the extensive alumni network were instrumental in enabling me to migrate from strategy consultant to brand manager to the talent/HR space… all while not regressing in my career trajectory.
It’s impossible to calculate an ROI of the degree, but I am certain that the course of my professional advancement would have been different without these priceless benefits.”
“Many MBA students have mesmerizing visions for their future,” says Stacy Blackman, President of Stacy Blackman Consulting. “As such, MBA hard costs are truly trivial relative to their grand professional goals.”
Step 4: Look at Both Cost and Financial Aid
The face value of this degree is easily over $100,000, making the question “Is an MBA worth it?” a vital one. But, we recommend looking at adjusted costs after financial aid or scholarship. Let’s look deeper.
Costs vary by program and are adjusted once you factor in scholarships and financial aid. For example, HBS emails this explainer to prospective MBA applicants: “HBS offers admission to the strongest applicants without any knowledge of their financial situation. In return, students are expected to take responsibility for the expense of earning the degree and determine how best to pay for their studies. Taking the responsibility for the financial aspects of earning an MBA is a fundamental part of each student’s obligation.”
“Students are encouraged to draw on personal resources wherever possible to minimize debt,” writes HBS admissions. HBS shared in an email to a prospective MBA student, “approximately two-thirds of HBS students receive some assistance.”
MBA programs guide post-admit financial aid resources. To illustrate cost and aid scenarios, see the one-year cost analysis summary at the left from the HBS site.
Across our client pool, we have seen many applicants receive full-ride scholarships. Any scholarships extended along with the initial offer of admission are the best way to defray tuition costs.
Once you submit your application, it is automatically considered for a scholarship based on school-specific criteria. But fierce competition exists for these fellowship and scholarship dollars.
Get the Insider Edge
The SBC team has former Admissions Officers (AdCom) from every top program, including HBS, Stanford GSB, and Wharton. We know how to help applicants build a strong pitch for why they deserve a coveted spot in the program. That pitch should be clear and compelling enough to generate both an admit outcome and scholarship generosity.
Is an MBA worth it? “Our clients receive literally hundreds of thousands in financial aid every year,” says Blackman.
“We hit close to $4.8 million from last season, and 25% of clients received scholarships last year based on the high quality of their applications.”
Laura, a recent SBC client, shared her scholarship outcomes that resulted from an optimal application strategy. “I am an international applicant with a non-traditional background. I applied to several programs last year but failed to get admittance,” Laura explained.
“Before approaching SBC, I did not understand my strengths or feasible career goals because I didn’t know the vast MBA applicant landscape. Through the all-in engagement with the SBC team, I was admitted to two schools with a large amount of scholarship to cover 50-80% of the tuition.”
Request a free consultation with a Principal
on our SBC team to assess school fit.
Step 5: Know That Brand Matters
Lately, there’s more emphasis on the MBA program’s rank, especially within the traditional cohort of finance and consulting applicants. MBA demand has surged since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Opportunity costs have diminished in these tenuous economic times, and applicants have become more willing to leave their positions for reputable MBA programs.
A former MIT Admissions Officer on the SBC team shares, “Those top MBA programs will give the best and the brightest access to the top employers, top salaries, and fantastic networks. All of that is very valuable.”
“There’s no better example than one of our female candidates this past season,” says Esther Magna, Principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting. ”She received scholarship dollars to many top MBA programs, including a 100% scholarship to an M7 program. She declined the free tuition at two other programs ranging between $100,00-$200,000 and instead chose Wharton, where she will pay the full tuition. The Wharton brand, for her specific career path and ambitions, was that valuable.”
Blackman concurs, adding that “MBA applicants are more focused on MBA program brand now than ever before. Brand predicts rigor of student peer group, enhanced legitimacy of the degree, and long-term professional networks.”
Step 6: Assess Worth by Location and Program Type
The program’s location should also influence your decision. “Geography is key, especially for international candidates but also to an extent US candidates,” says Christine Hawkins, a London-based Senior Consultant on the SBC team.
Post-MBA career preferences should drive location choices. For example, a professional who wants to work in the US should focus on US MBA programs. Likewise, an applicant interested in the EU for post-MBA work should look into INSEAD and LBS.
“Think carefully about where you plan to be long-term. Consider the reputation and the network of each program in your target geography, both now and where you believe it will be in 10 or 20 years,” Christine advises.
Also, career location outweighs program length. Note that one-year programs often lack summer internships, so there isn’t a “better” format between the one-year vs. two years. Instead, it is about the individual candidate’s profile and priorities.
Step 7: Is an MBA Worth It? Define Worth by Your Priorities
“With our clients, we really dig into actual career goals in deciding which MBA program applications are worth pursuing,” shares Caryn Altman, a Senior Consultant on the SBC team.
“We do an in-depth discussion of post-B-school location preference, as that can be a huge factor. We counsel our clients to network with those who have an MBA in the chosen field so they can frame not only short-term career placement but also longer-term career trajectory and the importance of a particular MBA program in their successes,” Altman explains.
“Also, we encourage our clients to engage with current MBA students to define the MBA’s value for their needs further.”
The MBA’s worth depends entirely on your professional profile and career aspirations and what you do once you are at the program. Fit with and performance at the program are essential. For example:
- a low-performing Wharton student won’t get the full ROI from the program
- a high-performing Cornell student who hustles to get the right-fit summer internship at an elite company will enjoy a great ROI for his or her MBA experience
- a liberal-arts-educated applicant who needs the MBA to learn hard skills will find a strong ROI at almost every top 20 MBA program
- a healthcare-minded professional who uses the specialized healthcare experts/coursework—at Wharton’s Healthcare Management program or the comparable at Duke Fuqua—will create incredible professional opportunities regardless of the specific ranking of the program for a given year
If you have completed this checklist and feel inspired to embark on the MBA journey, then go for it!
Additional insights on how to find your MBA program can be found here:
Request a free consultation with a Principal
on our SBC team to assess school fit.