How Women Can Overcome MBA Funding Challenges

A quality education is essential to creating a career, but it certainly doesn’t come without a cost. And the fact is, recent and upcoming graduates will find themselves saddled with a greater average debt burden than any other graduating class in history.

For aspiring women in business, taking money matters seriously is even more important. Money remains a feminist issue — women today still make only about 79% of what a man makes in the same position — and working to change the rules of the game while still playing to win is no easy feat. Women’s under-representation in business programs has hardly budged in the past 10 years, making gender inequality in the workplace and across wider society an ongoing issue.

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, 30% of female business school applicants in the U.S. say funding is their biggest challenge, compared with 9% of male applicants. But there are ways for female applicants to complete their business school education without mortgaging their financial future. With some hard work, the right connections, and a bit of creativity, it is possible to pay for an MBA and pursue your B-school goals without taking on enough debt to sink a cruise ship. Here are some tips to help make that happen.


Yes, it ought to be common sense, but every year female students leave significant sums of scholarship money on the table. Applying for scholarships can be a tedious and involved process, leading many to shun them entirely. Others may neglect to apply for certain scholarships or fail to consider federal student loans because they believe they don’t have the grades or the financial need to qualify.

Whatever your situation, it pays to apply for as many scholarships as you can. There are millions of dollars in scholarships waiting to be awarded every year, and you may be surprised to find that you qualify for more assistance than you thought. Don’t focus exclusively on the big prizes, either. Even modest scholarships can make a big difference when you’re staring down tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.

Following are just a couple MBA scholarships dedicated solely to women applicants. Search for more and you may be surprised what you find.

The Forté Fellows Program

The Forte Foundation created this program with the goal of increasing the numbers of women in MBA programs. To be considered for this fellowship, applicants must first submit an application to a participating business school – see the full list of Forté Sponsors here — and plan on becoming a full-time student. According to the foundation, participating schools now have given almost $110 million to more than 5,000 Forté Fellows.

The C200 Foundation 

The C200 Foundation offers an MBA scholarship of up to $10,000 for female students based on financial need and academic merit. Scholarship recipients are also given the opportunity to network with leading women in business across the country, and to speak with corporate decision-makers at companies like Google, Intel, Pfizer, and more.

American Association of University Women (AAUW) 

The AAUW awards Career Development Grants to support female students in the process of pursuing a degree to “advance or change their career.” The grants are $2,000 and $12,000. Through their Selected Professions Fellowship in under-represented fields — an umbrella that includes business — the AAUW also provides grants of $5,000 to $18,000.


Like scholarships, grants are financial awards that never need to be paid back. However, unlike scholarships — which are primarily awarded to students based on various measures of merit and achievement — many grants are awarded for initiative and financial need. And for many, you don’t even need to be a student to apply.

Grants are available from a wide range of both federal and private institutions, and there are a range of education and small business grants available specifically for women applicants. As with scholarships, the best way to tilt the odds in your favor is to apply for as many grants as you can. There’s no limit to how much grant funding you can obtain, and there’s plenty of money out there to be had! So if you’re a female entrepreneur working on your business while you attend B-school, you’ll want to start with this shortlist:

InnovateHER Challenge 2017

The InnovateHER Challenge is backed by the federal Small Business Administration and the Sara Blakely Foundation. Applicants are first entered into local contests to compete with business owners in their area. If successful in the local and semifinal rounds, applicants get to present their business at a national competition hosted by the SBA. The winner of 2017’s competition could win up to $70,000 in grant money.

The InnovateHER award is aimed at small businesses that seek to both empower women and families and fulfill a marketplace need. The winners of 2016’s challenge received increased awards of $40,000, $20,000, and $10,000, respectively, with first place going to Elizabeth Caven’s UpCraft Club, a digital sewing pattern company.

Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Businesses Grant Program

Eileen Fisher, a prominent fashion designer, launched her small business grant program for women in 2004.

Each year her company awards $100,000 in total grants to 10 women-owned businesses. The program “supports innovative, women-owned companies that are beyond the start-up phase and ready to expand their business and their potential for positive social and environmental impact.”

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards

Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards are an international competition seeking early-phase female entrepreneurs with the goal of “solving contemporary global challenges.” According to the CEO of Cartier, since 2006 the program has grown from attracting 360 to nearly 2,000 applications. Today the initiative has “become a transformative step in the lives of 162 women entrepreneurs in over 45 countries.” Six first-prize recipients are awarded $100,000 in prize money and one-on-one business mentoring with INSEAD’s Social Entrepreneurship 6-Day Executive Programme.


It also pays to check what’s available in your area. One example is a  $2,000 grant in New York State, awarded two times each year via the Suffolk County Women’s Business Enterprise Coalition. You can search for federal small business grants by using government databases, and the SBA has resource centers throughout the country that offer free and low-cost business counseling classes.


It certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you’re ready for the challenge, the military is an excellent way to secure financial assistance with your education. The GI Bill provides a free education and free student housing to military veterans — but be aware that the bill applies only to those who have served on active duty and obtained an honorable discharge. Active-duty service members may also be eligible for tuition assistance of up to $4,500 per year. Best of all, this total doesn’t count against any GI Bill assistance for which you may also qualify.


Employers in many industries have made a concerted effort in recent years to appeal to recent graduates, and while higher salaries and other benefits are common for MBA grads, companies are increasingly turning to another tactic to attract talented employees: tuition reimbursement. In fact, surveys have shown that up to 60% of all companies now offer some form of reimbursement or assistance to help defray student debt. When seeking a new job, it may be advantageous to consider employers who offer some form of tuition reimbursement, even if other employers are offering a better salary.


The more income sources you can create, the better you’ll be able to keep your financial house in order. According to Sallie Krawchek, founder of Ellevest, “The right time invest is almost always now, so that the power of compounding can begin to work its magic.” Krawchek’s investing platform was created with women in mind, and accounts for the fact that female investors have different goals and life circumstances than their male counterparts.

“Our goal was to make (investing) approachable and achievable for all women,” Krawchek says. She also owns Ellevate, a networking community with thousands of members worldwide that promotes women as business leaders.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as the name suggests, is a go-to method for finding financial aid from a range of sources. This includes grants, subsidized low-interest loans and other aid that may not be available to students without a valid FAFSA on file. Unfortunately, many students either submit their applications too late or neglect to complete them altogether. Pay close attention to the deadlines for submission and get your form in as soon as you can — aid is often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.

For women especially, financial concerns are a common roadblock to achieving success in business. And while tremendous student loan debt may seem unavoidable nowadays, this doesn’t have to be the case — you may be surprised at how much you can reduce the cost of your MBA if you keep your mind and options open. Low debt is the key to a healthier financial future; no matter where you are in your education, following the tips above will help you limit your expenses, keep your student debt manageable, and help you along the path toward a profitable career.

Beth Kotz is a contributing writer to She specializes in covering financial advice for female entrepreneurs, college students, and recent graduates. She earned a BA in communications and media from DePaul University in Chicago, where she continues to live and work.


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