Earlier this week, a new report on student loan debt seemed to have some good news for MBA graduates. The study by the New America Foundation suggested that the debt burden of MBAs was significantly lighter than the borrowing assumed by all other graduate students.
Citing 2012 numbers, the report said that the typical debt of MBA graduates who borrow is just $42,000, versus $161,772 for graduates of med school and $140,616 for law school. In fact, graduates of every other master’s program incurred more debt than MBAs, according to the study.
Well, forget it. If you’re aiming to go to a highly ranked business school for your MBA, you can pretty much toss the New American report in the garbage. Even after Harvard Business School handed more than $30 million in fellowship money to its students, the average debt burden for Class of 2013 graduates was $73,926 last year—and that was pretty much a bargain, compared to the loans racked up by graduates of the most prestigious business schools.
WHARTON AGAIN TOPPED THE MBA DEBT BURDEN TABLE
At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the estimated MBA debt burden was a record $118,100, while at Columbia Business School it was $115,200. MBA graduates of Duke University’s Fuqua School last year saw their average loans increase by 6% to $108,186 from $102,054 in 2012 and $96,805 in 2011.
And you don’t have to graduate from a highly ranked school to leave with an MBA and a pile of debt. Last year’s graduating MBAs from Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management racked up average debt loads of $89,245, a whopping 35% increase over the $66,111 in average debt just two years ago.
So why does the New American Foundation report show typical MBA debt burden at only $42,000, up only $627 since 2004, according to the report? Mainly because the Department of Education numbers include part-time MBA students who are earning their degrees as they work and can therefore afford not to borrow as much money. It also includes graduates from a much wider range of schools not in the highly selective category.
SOME OF THE LOWEST DEBT LOANS WERE AT WISCONSIN, WASHINGTON & BRIGHAM YOUNG
Still, some fairly prominent business schools actually beat the New American average MBA debt burden. MBAs from the University of Washington’s Foster School last year averaged student debt of only $38,394. At the University of Wisconsin’s business school average debt totaled only $22,410 and at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School, it was only $27,942.
At the highest-ranked MBA programs, the analysis of student loans by Poets&Quants also showed that many business schools are pouring in record amounts of scholarship money that is both slowing down increases in average debt and in some cases resulting in some significant declines.
Consider MBA graduates at Vanderbilt University’s Owen School. They saw average debt fall by 9.6% in 2013 to $76,205 from $84,342 a year earlier. The school managed to lower student debt by holding tuition and fees low, increasing its pool of scholarship money by 27% in the past three years, and getting more students summer internships and full-time sign-on bonuses. “Together, these have driven the very desirable result of affordability and reduced student debt,” says M. Eric Johnson, dean of the Owen School.
THE MCCOMBS SCHOOL AT UT-AUSTIN REPORTS A 12.6% FALL IN AVERAGE MBA DEBT
The University of Texas at Austin also reported a significant decrease in MBA debt burdens. The Class of 2013 saw a 12.6% fall in average borrowing to $70,395 from $80,589 a year earlier. A spokesperson for the school attributed the decline to both additional scholarship funding but also better data. “For the first time this year we pulled data and reports straight from our university’s central Financial Aid Office, rather than trying to calculate the numbers internally. We found out that we had been over-estimating the amount of indebtedness in the past,” the spokesperson said.
New York University’s Stern School reported an impressive 11.3% drop in average MBA debt to $93,832 from $105,782 in 2012. Stern Dean Peter Henry says a major concern for him is “accessibility” to higher education. One of his top priorities is to raise more money for scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students. The reason average debt is down at Stern, he says, is increased funding for scholarships and a new program that forgives loans if a graduate pursues a career in the social sector.
All told, though, average debt was up at 19 of the ranked schools at which borrowing is highest. It was down as nine schools. High average debt is also a sign that a school is offering less scholarship support than rivals and trailing in the “arm’s race” to win the best prospective students. Business schools that decline to provide average debt numbers–including Wharton and Columbia–are known to have comparatively smaller pools of fellowship money than their peers.