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Highest & Lowest Paid MBAs of 2014

moneytreeWhat’s the upper limit on MBA pay, the biggest number an MBA from a top business school could command in today’s marketplace?

The high end for base salary alone can be nearly three times the median at some schools, according to a new analysis of employment reports from the top business schools. But if you take into account sign-on bonuses and other year-end guaranteed compensation, the highest total compensation packages can easily reach half a million dollars.

For the Class of 2014, the highest pay appears to have gone to a Wharton MBA who received $350,000 in “other guaranteed compensation”–a number that exceeded every reported base salary for the year. If the graduate also bagged the median salary and signing bonus for the class, the MBA would have signed up for first-year total pay of $500,000. In all probability, the big prize went to one of five Wharton MBAs who gained jobs in the hedge fund field where the median–yes median–other guaranteed compensation was $150,000 in 2014, greater than the median base salary for the entire class of $125,000.

MBAS AT THREE SCHOOLS–STANFORD, HARVARD & WHARTON–HAD GRADS LANDING $300K SALARIES

The highest reported base salaries for 2014, meantime, were $300,000. At least two graduating MBAs from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business landed $300K starting paychecks, one in private equity and venture capital and the other in investment banking in Asia. At least one Wharton MBA also reported a $300K base, while at least a pair of Harvard Business School grads landed salaries in private equity and venture capital at the $300,000 mark. At Stanford, there were plenty of other big pay days for Stanford this past year: A pair of MBAs each landed $240,000 in “other compensation” in hedge fund and media/entertainment jobs, while yet another Stanford grad expected to pocket $200,000 in other year-end comp in investment management.

And the lowest salaries? Graduating MBAs at three prominent business schools–Columbia, Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon–all reported students accepting jobs for just $24,000 a year to start. Two of them were predictably in the non-profit arena, while a third was in consulting, probably in either India or Africa where the currency translation into U.S. dollars makes the compensation seem puny by comparison. Indeed, the lowest reported salary of all was $23,000 for a financial services job in an emerging economy in Asia for an MBA from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. More often than not, the lowest salaries were paid to MBAs who went into the social sector or government work. But in some cases the lowest sums were reported by grads who went into retail, media and entertainment, healthcare and technology.

The highs and lows, of course, are all extremes. Typically, MBAs who nail down the biggest pay packages of their class have highly desired skills, proven work experience, and successful pre-MBA track records that make a company pay up big time. “On the high salaries, it’s usually a very unique and specific match between a company’s needs and a student’s relevant skills and experiences,” says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

BRINGING A ‘LOT TO THE TABLE ON YOUR START DATE’

A good example occurred at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management last year. One MBA grad had worked for Starwood Hotels & Resorts where she helped to build a successful customer reward program. The graduate was able to take that experience, along with her newly minted MBA, to a well-known fashion brand where she will build a similar program. “She has leverage and they don’t have the skills or experience to do what she can do,” says Mark Gasche, managing director of Kellogg’s Career Management Center. “She can bring a lot more to the table on her start date. That’s the kind of person who would get high pay. They bring a deeper, often specialized background to leverage in a negotiation.” Her job offer fell outside the reporting three-month-post-graduation reporting period so her compensation wasn’t included in Kellogg’s overall numbers.

It’s no accident that one of the two highest paid MBAs at MIT Sloan last year, both landing $180,000-a-year salaries, had more than five years of work experience. The other had three to five years of work history. “Students who command high salaries can show deep functional experience,” says Regina Resnick, associate dean and managing director of Columbia Business School’s Career Management Center. “You might already be a proven and successor investor, gone through our value investing program, and then be attractive to a hedge fund. Whatever the case, MBAs are well compensated and they are incredibly privileged. The degree really pays off.”

At Columbia last year, the top end was achieved by someone who didn’t even enter finance, the industry that typically pays the highest first-year compensation and a strength at Columbia. something of a shock. The highest reported base salary–$275,000–was scored by an MBA who took a business development job at a manufacturing company.

Many schools conceal the highest total compensation packages to protect the privacy of their graduates and to prevent applicants from having unrealistic expectations of what they can expect out of the MBA degree. So in virtually all cases, the numbers provided here are conservative. It is not known, therefore, if the MBA at Columbia Business School who landed a $275,000 starting salary also received a sign-on bonus as well as other year-end compensation. For that matter, it also does not include reimbursement of tuition, relocation offsets, carry, or non-guaranteed performance bonuses or the value of stock options.

WHO GETS THE BENNIES DEPENDS ON WHICH INDUSTRY EMPLOYS YOU

Generally, only a minority of students receive these other benefits. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School said, for example, that slightly over 22% of its graduates last year were given stock options. Wharton revealed that half of its MBAs received relocation money in 2014, but only 5% accepted jobs with reimbursed tuition. Sign-on bonuses obviously are more common than “other guaranteed compensation.” At Wharton, 65% pulled down signing bonuses, but only 15% got a back-end compensation deal. It generally depends on the industry in which an MBA accepts a job.

If the big winner at Columbia merely received the median in “other compensation,” as 75% of the students in the MBA’s industry category did, it would have pushed the graduate’s starting comp package up by $50,000 to $325,000, though the highest “other compensation” in that job category pulled down an extra $150,000, three times the median.

Columbia, by the way, had at least have a dozen graduates last year with starting base salaries of $200,000 or more, including a $270,000 base for an MBA who went into investment management, a $200,000 base for a graduate who entered the private equity field, and another $200,000 base for an MBA who landed a position in the entertainment industry. All those numbers are a far cry from the lowest reported salary—just $24,000 for a person who accepted a job in the education, government or non-profit sector.

(See following page for our table of the highest paid MBAs of 2014)