I’ve always loved this time of year. I love that the weather starts to get cool and crisp. I love that the leaves change to beautiful oranges and reds. And I love going back to school. Or, at least I always did when I was in school. There is something so exciting about the start of a new school year, the promise of new subjects to master and of course the new supplies and clothing to buy.
This year, for the first time in many years, I won’t be going back to school. Last December, after three long years of working full time and attending school at night and on weekends, I graduated with my Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. And boy, was I glad to be done. As much as I love learning, I’m really hopping that this was my last foray into higher education.
My path to pursuing an MBA was by no means linear. People choose to get an MBA for a myriad of reasons, from personal or professional development, to career changes, to starting a business, and on and on. For me, I felt that an MBA would complement my undergraduate education and allow me to progress more quickly in my field. I also just like book learning and being in school.
If you’ve decided that an MBA is the right path for you, for whatever reason, you may be considering your options when it comes to selecting a school and a program. I elected to pursue my MBA part-time, allowing me to work throughout school. You can attend an MBA program full time, on an accelerated basis, online, through blended learning classes, and so on. There are so many choices, and the decision about what program to pursue should be based on many factors, both personal and financial.
Today, I’ll share some thoughts on the financial side of selecting an MBA program. Much of this may apply to other areas of study, although there are some fields in which there is no flexibility in the educational path (becoming a doctor springs to mind).
So you want to get your MBA
When I was considering which MBA program to attend, I began by looking at the available options. A full-time, two year degree was a possibility, although that would mean two years out of the workforce and leaving a job that I loved. A part-time degree, which could take anywhere from three to eight years, was another possibility. This type of program would allow me to keep my job (and my income!), but the highest ranked schools don’t offer part-time MBA programs, so I would to a degree be limiting the quality of the education I got. I was less than two years out of college when I elected to purse my MBA, so accelerated or executive MBA programs weren’t a real option, and online or blended learning programs didn’t hold a lot of appeal to me. Therefore I began to compare full-time vs. part-time MBA programs.
I knew that my decision needed to take into account my personal preferences and career aspirations, as well as my finances. Here are some of the pros and cons I thought through for each program type:
The good: The best schools only offer a full-time option. Attending one of these schools (if I could get it) would expose me to some of the best and most influential teachers and business people in the world, not to mention my classmates, who were likely to become those highly influential business people later in life. I would get a name brand degree that people would ooh and ahh over. I would get bragging rights. Hopefully I would also get a great education and an awesome job upon graduation.
The bad: These schools are great, but they cost a fortune. In addition to paying for tuition (likely through student loans), I would forgo substantial income during the two years I was in school. I was in a job I loved, in an industry that highly values hands on experience, and a full time MBA meant leaving all of that. Finally, while I would be in classes with some of the world’s brightest up-and-coming business people, they were likely to scatter across the globe upon graduation, leaving me with a potentially limited network in Boston.
The good: Since I could maintain my full-time job, I could easily continue to pay all my regular living expense, so the only added cost of attending a part-time MBA would be tuition and books. That made it a substantially cheaper option. My employer also had a policy for tuition reimbursement, further reducing my out-of-pocket costs. While part-time MBAs aren’t offered by tippity top schools, they are offered by great, local schools, which leave you with a strong reputation and network within a given geographic area. By working while in school, I would also be able to directly apply the concepts I was learning, helping enhance the education.
The bad: I’d miss out on that name brand, the bragging rights, knowing the future CEO of Google or President of the United States (ok I don’t think many presidents go to B-school, but you get the idea). I’d also have to work full time and then go to school and study on top of that, meaning several years of basically no life. Finally, there was some risk of the cost of the degree increasing substantially over the time it would take to complete the program (some people take as many as eight years, and tuition of course goes up each year).
In the end, my decision was made when I envisioned myself in the future. I have never had a desire to become the CEO of a company. I don’t want to be famous or powerful. I just want to have a comfortable life with challenging work and a reasonable work-life balance. I wasn’t willing to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt and give up a job I loved just for that fancy name brand MBA. With that, it was decided that a part-time MBA was for me.
While this decision made perfect sense for me, it surely wouldn’t for many others. I hope you can see from this the issues that I thought through, and can apply them through the lens of your own life to help guide your personal decision.
I’ll leave you to think through the personal aspect of this decision for yourselves, but I’m going to give you a little help on the financial side. I’ve run some current numbers to give you an idea of the real cost differentials between different MBA options. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve only looked at three options. Since I live in Boston, of course Harvard was the natural choice for a full-time, top of the line MBA program. You just can’t beat it in terms of quality or name recognition. As a point of comparison, I’ve looked at Babson College, my alma mater and a great, local school with a strong reputation and both full and part-time MBAs. Here is how the numbers pan out:
This is how I arrived at these numbers:
- Total Costs: I recorded the cost information provided by each school for each program (Babson’s is here and Harvard’s is here). For the part-time MBA, I assumed it would take three years to complete the degree, so I’ve included housing, food & personal and healthcare costs for three years. For the full-time programs, all costs are for two years. The health insurance is lower for the part-time program because I am assuming an employer-sponsored plan for which the employee is responsible for only a portion. The “Total Costs” is an all-in cost for the full degree based on each school’s estimates.
- Income: Schools unfortunately do not provide data about the salaries of students entering their MBA programs. For the Babson part-time income number, I used this data from the BLS. I recorded the median weekly earnings for all people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and multiplied it out to cover the three years of the degree. While this would probably go up over a three year period due to raises, I have not included any increases here. The full-time program income comes from the internship that most students have between their first and second years (Babson doesn’t provide an average salary but I used the median salary from this article as a proxy; Harvard data here). Tax liability was calculated with this calculator.
- Total Loans Required: The Total Costs less Net Income. This assumes no costs in addition to those detailed under Total Costs, and that all Net Income (after taxes) goes directly towards paying for the degree. This also assumes no scholarship money (although from what I understand it is fairly common to get scholarship money for full-time programs at local schools; Harvard doesn’t really do scholarships for MBAs and part-time programs rarely do either).
- Net Pay: This is the net pay per year that students average upon graduation (data for Babson here and Harvard here). For simplicity, this only includes base pay.
- Loan Payments: This uses standard loan terms of a 120 month repayment schedule and the current 5.84% interest rate for direct unsubsidized loans (source) to calculate monthly and lifetime repayment amounts.
- Lost Income: This is the amount of income forgone during school. The same data used to calculate income during the program for the part-time MBA was used to calculate the forgone income here. This calculation is the foregone income less the amount of income generated through the internship.
- Years to Recap: Calculated two different ways (with and without lost income), this shows how many years of work, post-graduation, it would take to pay for each degree. This is not a “real” number, as it assumes that all income after taxes goes directly to paying for the degree or associated loans. Obviously, you have to continue to pay for living expense after graduation, so really it would take much longer to pay off each of these degrees. These numbers are therefore for comparison purposes only.
What do the numbers tell me? I made a good choice!
Looking through these numbers, as I did with similar, although slightly lower, numbers three years ago when I was applying to school, I see that I made the right decision for me. Between the income I made while I was in school, tuition reimbursement from my employer and help from my parents, I was able to graduate debt-free. That would not have been the case with a full-time program. The idea of being saddled with over $2,000 in debt repayment each month is sickening. Even if I made over $100k/year (which in my industry is not a given), I’d still be shelling out a huge portion of my take-home pay just to pay for that degree. If you want to be the CEO or plan to get a job in investment banking upon graduation, perhaps these numbers work better for you. For little old me, I say “no.”
I find the most interesting number to be the “Years to Recap Lifetime Cost + Lost Income.” Somewhat surprisingly, even though Babson’s full-time MBA is more than $35,000 less expensive than Harvard’s, the average salary upon graduation makes Harvard’s program more “affordable,” in some sense. Of course, it is clear from these numbers that the part-time program offers the best deal overall. It does make me wonder about the benefit of getting a full-time degree from Babson vs. a part-time degree. For the monetary and opportunity cost differences, I’m not sure the full-time degree is worth it. After all, the curriculum and degree are identical.
Education is such a complicated and personal topic, and there is so much more I could say about it. This is only one way of looking at it, letting the numbers tell a big part of the story. I think that the most important thing is determining what is important to you in an education, and doing your research to make sure you find a program that is right for your goals.
But enough of my rambling. Tell me what you think! Do you have an MBA (or other master’s degree)? Did you go to school part-time or full-time? What were your reasons for your decision?