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Harvard | Mr. Big 4 To Healthcare Reformer
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$1 Million For A Wharton MBA? Not so.

A week ago, we reported that in all likelihood an MBA in this year’s graduating class at Stanford Graduate School of Business would be the highest paid MBA of the year. The freshly minted grad landed a hedge fund job that paid a guaranteed bonus of half a million dollars, bringing the person’s total starting compensation package to at least $675,000.

Few thought anyone could top that number, and Wharton reported earlier this week that one of its grads in the Class of 2011 also bagged a $500,000 signing bonus—just for agreeing to go to a certain, unidentified firm. It turns out, however, that the school input the wrong number. Instead of half a million, it was $300,000. Nothing to sneeze at, but hardly big enough to unseat the Stanford grad as the highest paid MBA of the year.

The Wharton sign-on bonus now merely ties the previous $300,000 signing bonus record reported by a Wharton grad in 2006.

That’s not all, however, Wharton says that the highest starting salary for one of its MBAs was $375,000, the highest yet reported by any business school this year. (Wharton’s record is $420,00 snagged by a 2009 MBA).

And wait. The highest guaranteed bonus—which is separate from a signing bonus—was $230,000. (Wharton’s high was $450,000 received by a 2008 MBA).

So much for the recession–and so much for critics who think the MBA is passe.

Wharton used to total each of these numbers—starting salary, sign-on bonus and other guaranteed bonus–into one tidy sum, but stopped that practice five years ago (see table on next page). So even when the school releases its 2011 employment report next week, it’s unlikely that you can tell with certainty what the person who got the half-a-million-dollar signing bonus will bring home in the first year.

Though Wharton won’t disclose which industry its highest-paid grad entered this year until the school’s official employment report comes out next week, in all probability the person headed into either a hedge fund or private equity job. The highest paid MBAs at Wharton over the past seven years have gone into either of those two fields. Indeed, Wharton’s known record, set by one of its MBAs in 2004, was for a total compensation package of $680,000 at a private equity firm.

These are, of course, the extreme highs of MBA pay. “They are usually people who have done it and are going back in,” says Maryellen Reilly Lamb, the newly appointed director of Wharton’s Career Management Center. “These are not the average MBAs who are switching careers.” Wharton says the median starting salary for the Class of 2011 was $120,000. Some 68% of the class got a median signing bonus of $20,000, and fewer still–some 16% of the class–received median guaranteed year-end bonus of $30,000.

By and large, the highest-starting salaries these days are being paid by private equity firms and hedge funds which recruit far fewer MBAs than the elite consulting firms and investment banking partnerships that buy MBAs in the boatloads. Among the largest private equity players, TPG Capital and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) are known as the highest paying PE shops. Not far behind, according to a recruiter for a top private equity firm, are Blackstone, Bain Capital, Carlyle Group, Providence, and Apollo. Even so, median pay in private equity isn’t nearly as large as these big numbers. At Harvard, the median salary for an MBA going into private equity this year was $130,000 and the median salary for an HBS grad going into hedge funds was $150,000.