Should You Get an MBA? 5 Factors to Consider
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- While the initial cost is high, a master of business administration (MBA) degree can lead to increased earnings for graduates.
- Choosing the right format is essential. Online and part-time MBAs may be cheaper options than full-time, on-campus programs.
- Advocates for MBAs say the degree offers benefits beyond just higher earnings, such as robust alumni networks.
- Prospective students considering an MBA should seek out scholarship opportunities and research cheaper MBA alternatives.
Whether you're a young business analyst or an experienced manager, at some point you may face a critical question that will shape the rest of your professional journey: "Should I get an MBA?"
Answering this question would be a no-brainer if MBAs were cheap, but many aren't. The average cost of an MBA program runs around $55,000, with elite programs pricing out at more than $120,000 annually.
So with initial costs being so high, does the degree pay off?
Ashish Bhardwaj, senior vice president of market development for the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), said return on investment (ROI) has always been important to students pursuing an MBA — but added that the pandemic served as an "accelerator" for students' focus on ROI.
"I think from an income standpoint, the MBA probably has been the most rock-solid graduate business program that you could pursue," Bhardwaj told BestColleges.
Bhardwaj explained that an MBA typically leads to increased earnings, to the tune of a 40-60% increased income after graduation.
Data backs up this claim. Getting an MBA can boost salaries by as much as 50% and tends to lead to higher starting salaries than those who graduate with a bachelor's in business administration alone. The median starting salary for a bachelor's in business administration was $56,391 in 2022 compared to $84,696 for MBA graduates, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
The MBA has also changed in recent years: Schools are increasingly incorporating innovative curricula to meet student and industry demand, and the pandemic forced schools to innovate and offer more online and hybrid learning options to students.
Bhardwaj said the pandemic's ripple effects are still being felt at business schools across the globe. He said schools are now more "digitally capable" than ever before.
"It's just now offering this tremendous amount of flexibility for people to work and operate from the standpoint of being able to manage their personal life, personal commitments while also being productive, workwise," Bhardwaj said.
In short, there are a host of variables to consider — both personal and professional — when deciding whether to earn an MBA. Check out these five factors that may be important in your decision-making process.
1. Choose an MBA Format That Best Suits Your Needs
MBA students come from all walks of life, from recent graduates heading directly into full-time programs to seasoned professionals looking to take their career to the next level.
Students have access to a wide range of program options when it comes to getting an MBA:
|Typical Student Profile
|These programs typically take two years to complete and involve intensive in-person classes on campus.
|Younger students and professionals
|Part-time programs take longer to complete, but they also offer classes at nontraditional hours to work around students' schedules. These programs tend to be cheaper than full-time, in-person programs.
|Working professionals and students who can't go to school full time
|Online MBAs often feature flexible, asynchronous learning that allows students to work toward their degree on their own schedule. Programs run full or part time and tend to be cheaper than full-time programs.
|Working professionals and students who can't go to school full time
|Executive MBA programs confer that same degree as a typical MBA, but they are geared toward experienced professionals and feature fewer, more intensive classes built around students' busy schedules.
|Professionals with multiple years of experience
2. Use an MBA to Accelerate Your Personal Growth
Increased income is a ubiquitous reason for pursuing an MBA, but the benefits of the degree reach far beyond heightened career prospects. Bhardwaj said students tend to look back on their degree as an accelerator of personal growth.
"Broadly, in terms of their enrichment, in terms of their career advancement, in terms of just sort of the expansion of their mindset, they continue to see the MBA as a positive experience," Bhardwaj said of MBA graduates that the GMAC engages with.
Networking is also a key benefit of MBA programs. Students engage with their peers and professors and build crucial relationships during their programs.
That return on investment in networking and personal fulfillment is key to younger students: A recent GMAC report found that Gen Z students prioritize both finances and emotional stability as they weigh business schools.
"Jobs and income are only part of what Gen Z wants to hear about in terms of their possible outcomes," that report reads. "They want to be able to balance their professional and personal responsibilities. They want to feel valued and fulfilled."
Bhardwaj said business schools that offer hybrid learning models often offer students opportunities to meet up and network with their peers but underscored that the hybrid "flex" MBA "cannot and is not designed to replace a two-year, full-time MBA experience."
Earning an MBA: Pros and Cons
MBA graduates often make more money, with an average starting salary of $85,696.
An MBA can lead to career advancement, with 66% of MBA graduates saying the degree boosted job security.
An MBA can provide a competitive advantage on a resume, boosting job prospects. Roughly 86% of MBA graduates were employed upon graduation.
MBA programs provide a host of networking opportunities.
An MBA can be an expensive investment, with full-time, in-person programs costing $43,400 per year on average.
With even accelerated programs taking a year to complete, an MBA represents a significant time commitment.
An MBA isn't usually an absolute requirement for various leadership positions or starting a business.
Sources: GMAC, BestColleges
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3. Find an Innovative, Future-Proof MBA Curriculum
The Stanford University School of Business made waves when it announced an innovative, climate-centered program in 2023: Ecopreneurship.
The program, centered around helping students build eco-friendly businesses, will feature grants and hands-on projects to help students launch private, public, and nonprofit sustainability projects.
Stanford joins a growing number of schools in promoting sustainability in its business curriculum. Bhardwaj said business schools are increasingly incorporating emerging technology like artificial intelligence and sustainability into their curriculum as interest grows among students and businesses alike.
Many schools are also honing in on data and technology, not just in specializations, but throughout all of their curriculum. Tulane University announced earlier this year that it would revamp its business school curriculum to integrate data into its core courses.
"Data is ubiquitous now, and everybody needs to be at least data fluent," Bhardwaj said.
Schools are also moving to be in step with business sustainability practices, like committing to zero-paper policies and other efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, Bhardwaj said.
Innovative Business School Concentrations
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Various schools, including Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, have adopted AI concentrations and curriculum. Students in this field learn about machine learning and incorporating AI into business practices.
Sustainability and Climate Change
Businesses are increasingly adopting sustainability-related positions like chief climate officers, and a sustainability concentration prepares students to make eco-friendly decisions as managers.
Cybersecurity and Information Technology
Businesses are scrambling to fill cybersecurity positions amid a nationwide labor gap, and a cybersecurity MBA concentration can help prepare students for the burgeoning field. Courses in this concentration focus on data security and best practices in the field.
Healthcare is another field projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to grow over the next decade -- and healthcare management concentrations train students to take on executive roles in the sector.
These programs teach students to leverage the internet and social media for marketing strategy, a key area of interest as businesses look to engage with an increasingly online customer base.
4. Seek Out MBA Scholarship Opportunities
The cost of an MBA has risen over time, but Bhardwaj said schools also offer a host of opportunities to help students pay for the sought-after business degree.
Those scholarships often serve as key points of access for first-generation students who might otherwise be unable to afford an MBA, Bhardwaj said.
"There's a mindset toward students who require scholarships as a result of their economic means, but also offering scholarships to students who are first-generation learners, or offering scholarships to students who offer increased diversity in terms of the work they've done in their lives."
Other schools offer more targeted scholarships: The Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business launched an effort to recruit laid-off tech workers with scholarships of up to $30,000 in early 2023.
There are a wide range of ways to pay for an MBA beyond scholarships and taking out student loans: Some employers fund their employees' degrees for professional development, and various fellowships help students afford their degrees.
5. Consider MBA Alternatives
An MBA isn't the only graduate business degree that students can pursue to further their careers.
Whether it's an alternative master's degree that focuses on a particular field or discipline or a short-term training program that adds a vital skill to a student's resume, students have options beyond traditional MBA programs when it comes to achieving better earnings and job prospects.
A low-cost alternative to a traditional MBA, these fast-tracked programs can also lead to increased salaries and a decent return on investment for students. These programs are typically affordable, run less than 15 weeks, and can also come in an online format while covering a host of business topics.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
These individual, free online courses cover a wide range of topics in the business world, and they are open to anyone who registers for the course. These courses usually aren't counted toward a degree, but they can offer insights and skills training relevant to various jobs and opportunities for working professionals.
A host of online business certificates are available to people looking to advance their careers. Schools offer certificates in business management, leadership, data analysis, cybersecurity, and a wide range of other hot topics to bolster a resume.
Master's in Management
Like an MBA, these programs prepare students for leadership roles and often cater to students who want to take on managerial roles but don't have experience as business leaders. A master's in management curriculum often focuses on leadership, strategy, and project management, and the degree usually takes about two years to complete.
Master of Public Policy
Another degree with a heavy focus on leadership, a master's in public policy revolves around public opinion, influencing government decisions, and leadership. The degree can open up a wide range of jobs for students, including lobbyists, researchers, consultants, and leaders of nonprofit organizations.