Why The MBA Is Now The Most Popular Master’s

The first MBA students at the Tuck School of Business founded in 1900 as the first graduate school of management

The first MBA students at the Tuck School of Business founded in 1900 as the first graduate school of management

The MBA was born at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School 114 years ago with a four-student class. Today there are hundreds of thousands of MBA students a year earning degrees in thousands of institutions worldwide.

More than that, for the first time ever, the MBA has become the most popular postgraduate degree in the U.S. after education, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2011-2012, the last year for which data is available, 191,571 people graduated from U.S. schools with advanced degrees in business, some 25.4% of all the master’s degrees conferred. That compares with 178,062 master’s in education, or 23.6%, of all the advanced degrees (See table below).


Through most of the modern era, a master’s in education had long been the dominant degree, in part because some states require it to teach. Indeed, back in 1970-71, business master’s accounted for just 11.2% of all postgraduate degrees, while education dominated with 37.2%. In those days, even advanced degrees in the humanities, which had 14.6% of the market for master’s degrees, exceeded those in business. The remarkable growth of the MBA—largely due to its widespread acceptance by employers and the almost assured return-on-investment of the degree—has been fairly steady during the past half century, making the degree the most successful educational product of the past 50 to 100 years.

How come? Srilata Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, has seen the transformative power of the degree first hand. “A business degree remains one of the most predictable paths to success and financial stability and can provide the proverbial leg up from relative poverty to great accomplishment and wealth,” she maintains.

“In uncertain times, such as we have had since 2008, it tends to draw more students who make this connection. We have any number of alumni from our MBA programs who have come from small towns, modest backgrounds, often the first generation in college, going on to become immensely successful entrepreneurs and leaders of global firms.” She cites John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo as an example. “He grew up in a farm family of 11 children in Pierz, MN, sharing a bedroom with his brothers, and being the first in his family to go to college,” she recalls.

Paul Danos, who as dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, is the longest serving leader of a major B-school, believes the growth has come become schools have adapted to the changing needs of the companies and organizations that hire MBAs.


“Businesses have grown enormously in complexity and scope, and more than ever, they need ethical, skilled, well-educated, creative leaders who are global in outlook,” says Danos. “Business education in general and the great MBA programs in particular have adapted as these demands have grown, perhaps better than any other form of advanced education.” The Department of Education numbers support his point of view. In 1980-1981, some 19.1% of all the master’s granted were in business. In 1990-1991, advanced degrees in business grew to 22.8% of the total market, and in 2000-2001 to 24.4%. The biggest gains for the degree occurred in the ten years from 1975 to 1985 when master’s in business grew to 22.5% of the total from 13.4%.

As far back as 1975, the MBA blew past both law and medical degrees in the U.S. But it was only three years ago, in 2010-2011, that business edged out education as the most popular advanced degree, accounting for 25.6% of all master’s versus the 25.3% for education. The numbers for business are largely made up of MBAs but also include specialized business master’s programs, including master’s of finance or accounting.

Says Danos: “Top business schools have continuously changed in response to the ever-changing demands of business; and this can be seen in how crucial issues such as: ethics, sustainability, leadership, technology, globalization and much more have been mainstreamed into MBA programs along with the classic core topics of business management.”

Source: U.S. Department of Education

Source: U.S. Department of Education

  • CoffeeShopGhost

    I know you’re poets and all but you need to re-check your source material. If you look, 2011-2102 is NOT the first year that MBAs surpassed Masters of Ed. It was the year before, in 2010-2011: 187,213 MBAs, 185,213 MEds. 187K > 185K

    They teach that sort of thing in MBA schools. 😉

    Just sayin’

  • bwanamia

    I like to think I add to the diversity of POVs on this website. Do you really enjoy thinking that your degree is even more common than an education masters? That thought makes me feel violated.

  • soylentcorp

    Now, exclude all for-profit and 100% admission programs, then take a look. Interesting to see Theology up there. Likely due to interfaith, cultural, counseling, academia focus, not necessarily ordained ministry.

  • chris

    you’re boring and negative David. (you may want to look into getting a MBA — communications and leadership classes would do you good).

  • mags

    All of us in currently working in the education field aren’t surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for a career choice in this area. What was once a life-choice of honor is now one that garners criticism, thanklessness and a never-ending workload–all for a salary significantly below those in any other profession. If I had to do it all over again, I would likely choose the MBA, too!

  • Boris Scharf

    Law enforcement is on the bottom… it just shows what the public thinks about police.

  • Matt

    Not really here nor there, but damn if you aren’t always just a negative Nancy.

  • bwanamia

    I haven’t felt so tempted to remove MBA from my resume since September 2008.

  • David

    All well and said, the problem being that John Byrne only focuses ad nausea like on the top twenty (of which he helped create via Businessweek), he overlooks the degree mill qualities that the degree often has become and the growing concerns of it’s diluting nature. Universities are using it as a cash cow to offset other areas or disciplines in many instances. The AACSB and other accreditation boards simply look the other way, standards are not applied evenly and the degree is being watered down continually. It is morphing into a one year hello how are you degree, reality is it will be a master of science in disguise.

    It used to be some form of experience was required before applying, now anyone can enter out of undergrad. Or in some instances the undergrad is not even needed, this being the case in the Queens Executive Program with Cornell. The degree has over exploited itself and shot itself in the foot, it lacks strong regulation and oversight. Rankings are all over the map and often gamed via alumni misrepresenting salary figures or students simply upping the satisfaction scores. Cost as well does not reflect reality.

  • As the saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

    My experience interacting with current MBA students and alumni from top b-school institutions is that the experience IS transformative (as mentioned in the article) and not just because of the content.

    Individuals that are from diverse backgrounds and geographic locations coming together to promote learning creates a powerful bonding environment and experience. The relationships are often very influential on future success and create lasting impressions MBA’ers lives.