Chris Ryan was a high school physics and chemistry teacher, earning less than $30,000 a year with a near empty bank account, when he decided to get an MBA degree.
It was the 1990s when tuition at even the best business schools was far more reasonable than it is today: about $24,000 a year, half the cost of today’s price tag. “The somewhat lower costs were still way out of reach for my meager savings, and I had do the whole thing on loans,” says Ryan, co-author of the recently published Case Studies & Cocktails: The Now What Guide to Surviving Business School.
The upshot: He graduated in 2000 from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business with about $80,000 of debt. That’s right: $80,000 in 2000. Last year’s graduating MBAs at Duke piled up average debt of $92,827. For Ryan, the gamble paid off. He left school with a job as an associate in McKinsey & Co.’s New York office, but it took him eight to nine years to finally finished paying off all the loans he took out for his MBA.
Why did he rack up such crushing debt and what does he think of MBAs who are graduating today with debt levels as high if not higher than he had back in the 1990s? “I think it stems from confidence,” he says. “One thinks, ‘I’m banking on myself here, I am going to be one of the successful ones.’ Maybe that bleeds into overconfidence in some cases, but it’s a strategic commitment, a big bet.”
Ryan saw the degree as an opportunity to switch careers. He had taught high school for five years and went to Duke with a laser focus on becoming a consultant. He landed a summer internship with McKinsey and then got the job offer to work there for two years afterward. “So it paid off for me,” he says.
“What the debt did to me was less about changing my focus (from something else to consulting – I wouldn’t have gone back to b-school without that goal) and more about crystallizing my focus,” Ryan adds. “I busted my butt in school to ace my classes, take on leadership roles, and otherwise fully engage in every aspect of business school. That goal had to be front and center for me.
“It’s about the micro-choices: It’s 11 p.m. on a Wednesday. I could just sack out or I could prepare tomorrow’s case. Most of the time, I would prepare the case. Sometimes, sure, I blew it off, to stay sane or to go out with friends or what have you (all the other goals of life). But with a non-traditional background and 100% debt, I had to take school seriously.”
Ryan, now vice president of product and instructor development for Manhattan GMAT, believes today’s debt-embracing applicants make similar choices. “They believe in themselves and are willing to invest,” he says. “Does that investment always pay off in the way they wish? Maybe not. MBAs learn all about overconfidence & other cognitive biases that affect decision-making, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fall prey to those same mental traps. There may be some folks who are unrealistic, who don’t really weigh the probabilities and the payoffs of various outcomes. But by and large, I remember folks taking the consequences seriously.
“MBAs as a group are a confident bunch,” says Ryan. “They’re probably somewhat more risk-taking than many other kinds of grad students (though less risk-taking than the “drop out of school” entrepreneurial type). This MBA confidence cuts both ways: it’s not always a good thing. But it’s not always a bad thing, either.”