MBA Debt: The Burden Grows Heavier & Gets Scarier

In 2008, Brian Jenkins moved to Malibu, Calif., to start his MBA at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. He had big ambitions for B-school, expecting the degree to help him land a job in human resources at a top company. He hoped to make close to a six-figure salary, too.

Pepperdine seemed poised to deliver. When he was a mere applicant, the admissions director gave him a personal tour of the business school, which commands a stunning perch overlooking the Pacific. His student experience was “amazing,” he says, handing top marks to his professors and classmates. He loved his courses and wrote an up-beat student blog. The weather – “perfect every day” – was an added perk.

To pay for all it, Jenkins took out $120,000 in loans. But Jenkins’ six-figure-salary job never materialized. “The career services staff basically said, ‘We’ll help you edit your resume, good luck out there,’” he recalls. “That was a little miss-sold to me (when I applied). A lot of (my classmates) found jobs paying $55,000 to $65,000 per year, and they were very excited that they had a job. A lot of people didn’t get jobs like that.”

In fact, Jenkins’ class earned a mean base salary of $69,167, according Pepperdine’s official stats–but they also owed an average $66,242. But the school that ranks 78th in the country happens to rank 20th in having the largest MBA debt. When the economy was doing well, and there was upward mobility, it made not have made all that much of a difference. MBAs then made sense, Jenkins believes. “People were able to mange their debt load. (Now), people are putting off families and buying homes.”


MBAs like Jenkins are shouldering record levels of debt, approaching a tipping point that makes the degree – no matter how good the experience and learning – a risky investment that isn’t always being approached with financial caution and restraint. It’s now common for many graduates to leave a top business school with six-figure debt, and in some cases, MBAs are graduating with more than $150,000 in loans that will take them ten or more years to pay back.

At a few elite business schools, including Wharton and Columbia, the “average” debt burden is already in six figures. Wharton grads left Philadelphia last year with loans that averaged $109,836–the most among all B-schools. Overall, graduates from Poets&Quants’ top-ten U.S. MBA programs owed an average $87,049 last year (MIT-Sloan did not release its debt figures). (See 25 B-Schools That Lead to the Most Debt)

Several business schools, including Stanford and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School, expect these numbers to go much higher this year. The reason: Many students are starting their MBAs with diminished assets due to the Great Recession. They drained their bank accounts as the economy went south to maintain their lifestyles so many of them will have to borrow more than earlier classes to get the degree. And they’re doing so at a time when starting salaries for MBAs, by and large, have flattened.

“The numbers scare me,” concedes Diane Bonin, director financial aid at the Tuck School. “People coming in are making a little bit less and have much less in available savings.” She expects the average debt burden of latest Tuck grads to rise to $98,500 from the record $96,292 last year.


Taking on debt has become a big enough issue to a few MBA hopefuls and alums that several have started blogs to address it. No Debt MBA, a Boston-based female blogger who will begin classes at a top B-school this fall, vows to get through the experience without a dollar of debt. “I think debt is a lot like a miter saw,” she says. “As a skilled user it can be a really useful tool for getting work done, but if you’re reckless you can chop your arm off. Many students seem to be blissfully chopping away, and I am slightly terrified of becoming one of them.”

The MBA-bound blogger, however, is a rare exception. In general, the incoming Class of 2013 expresses little concern over taking out the “miter saw.” Like Jenkins at Pepperdine, they’re betting that the degree will payoff in the long run, providing salaries and bonuses that will easily allow them to repay the loans. “No one says, ‘how am I going to pay for this?’ says Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions at MIT’s Sloan School. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years. A place like MIT is a low risk, high reward investment. With other schools, it may not be that situation.”

This is the first in a three-part series on MBA debt. The next story appears Friday on an incoming MBA at a top-tier school who is determined not to rack up a dollar of debt.

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