Darden Boosts MBA Scholarship Game

Darden students holding discussions after class

With a stated goal to become the most affordable and accessible MBA program from a top B-school, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business today (Sept. 23) announced a series of what it called “innovations” to its scholarship offerings. The goal is to make more evident the recent increase in scholarship funds for students who enroll in its MBA program.

Since becoming dean in mid-2015, Scott Beardsley has brought in pledges of $135 million for scholarships at the school and hopes to raise an additional $50 million to $100 million more. “We are just trying to do what we think is the right thing and continue to innovate and streamline and better communicate what we already have,” Beardsley tells Poets&Quants. “As a student who had to borrow everything to go to school, I am a big believer that you need to make education affordable and accessible. Scholarships for me were a game-changer in my life and it is equally relevant for students today.”

In recent years, scholarship awards have become an important tool for business schools to attract the best and brightest students into their MBA programs (see MBA Scholarships At Record Levels, With Awards As High As $200K). Some of the most promising applicants are being enticed by large sums of scholarship support. Devon Sanford, who just entered Harvard Business School as a first-year MBA, was showered with nearly $900,000 in scholarship offers from the eight schools that accepted her.


Just about every business school capital campaign includes fund-raising for student scholarships to offset the rising sticker prices on MBA degrees. Most schools jealously guard the amount of money they set aside for MBA awards,  but the size and number of scholarships have grown substantially since the last full accounting of MBA scholarships by Poets&Quants. When donors contribute to the school’s endowment, only 4.5% to 5.5% can be allocated in any one year. “You can only spend a certain percentage every year with endowment and some pledges take a while to come in,” says Beardsley. “It’s almost never enough.”

Among the newly announced innovations at Darden are:

  • The introduction of the Darden Distinguished Scholars Program for full-time MBA students, which includes a growing portfolio of merit scholarships and scholarship competitions offered by the Darden School and the Darden School Foundation.
  • A new competitive scholarship program called The Oculus Fellowships that will invite selected admitted full-time MBA students to apply and compete for this prestigious award, which includes full tuition and fees and other benefits.
  • A new need-based merit scholarship program called AccessDarden, which will provide students admitted on their merit — in both the full-time MBA and Executive MBA programs — the opportunity to apply for a need-based scholarship of up to $20,000 per year of study.


Darden School of Business Dean Scott Beardsley

“I don’t want the main barrier to an MBA to be whether you can finance it,” adds Beardsley. “If you go to a top business school you could have good earning potential but on the other hand, it is expensive. Awarding scholarships to deserving people is really part of our mission. And you have more career options if you are not so indebted that you have to do certain things. It’s part of being a great university.”

Roughly a third of the full-time MBA students at Darden currently receive partial or full scholarships that are awarded on the basis of both merit and need, though all of the school’s MBA candidates qualify for financial aid. “The first thing we do is guarantee that any student who comes to Darden qualifies for financial aid in the form of loans at the very least,” says Beardsley. Even if someone doesn’t have a penny and has no credit history, we stand behind their student loans. That’s very important. That means anybody can find a way to make it through.”

Under the new Darden Distinguished Scholars Program, the school is granting both competitive and merit scholarships. Competitive scholarships involve seven prestigious full-ride scholarship competitions, some in partnership with external organizations — to recognize high-achieving students who demonstrate a comprehensive set of admirable characteristics, including outstanding academic achievement, professional accomplishments, and leadership.


The Oculus Fellowships are a new competitive scholarship for the 2020-21 academic year awarded by the Darden School to recognize outstanding academic ability and leadership potential. Named for the Oculus — the circular opening at the apex of the Dome Room in the Rotunda — the fellowships represent the illumination that outstanding students and their ideas bring to the University. Awardees receive a full-ride–tuition and fees–to Darden’s full-time MBA program.

Darden merit scholarships are the second component of the Darden Distinguished Scholars Program. The Darden School and Darden School Foundation have an extensive portfolio of highly selective awards. The Admissions Office nominates individuals to the School and Foundation scholarship committees upon review of an applicant’s credentials through the application. The scholarships range from partial tuition stipends to full tuition and fees and are intended to recognize top talent and help the School build a talented and diverse class.

And finally, there is “AccessDarden.” a new, need-based program that provides scholarships of up to $20,000 based solely on financial need. The school considers such factors as income, savings and assets in determining whether full-time MBA and Executive MBA students are eligible after they have been admitted.


Beardsley points out that if an MBA student bore the total cost to attend Darden — at just over $100,000 per year — the MBA experience is the most affordable of the schools ranked in the Bloomberg Businessweek Top Ten due in part to the lower costs of living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the school’s comparatively lower tuition.

“The meta point is two years of business school is still a very significant investment of your time, your opportunity costs, and your money. Making sure that the beautiful gift of an MBA is still reachable and a worthwhile investment is a noble purpose onto itself. Making something more affordable means the ROI is higher and that educational experience is more reachable to a larger group of people.

“It’s all about removing barriers to having the world’s best educational experience and to allow new pipelines to flourish and increase the transparency for everyone. We want to be a place where students know that when they get in, we have their backs and will make it as affordable as possible for them. Some students really need help. I was one of those kids back in the day.”

DON’T MISS: This Business School Is Leading All Others In How To Compassionately Deal With The Pandemic or Meet Darden’s MBA Class Of 2021


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