He’s making six figures a year and has $40,000 in his bank account. He lives in an area of the U.S. that is cheap by East or West Coast standards. And this MBA applicant has gotten one admit and landed on a couple of waitlists.
But suddenly, he’s having doubts.
“I’m super worried about converting my waitlists into admits and absolutely terrified about the cost of the program I got into without $ (scholarship support),” he writes in a social media post under the heading “anyone else getting cold feet about the cost after admit.” The 28-year-old concedes he is debt averse because he has seen “some pretty bad outcomes with debt in my family which is partially why I’m scared of taking on this much for my MBA.
GETTING AN MBA DEGREE FROM A TOP SCHOOL IS A BIG INVESTMENT
“I understand the ROI, but wanted to hear current student & alum opinions on managing such huge debt. How big was your debt and how long did it take to pay off? Would you do it again if given a do over?”
He’s not alone. Going for an MBA at a top business school is serious business. Overall, the average cost to attend a top-25 MBA program in the U.S. for two years is now just shy of $200,000, up $4,128, or 2.1%, from $195,416 a year earlier (see What It Now Costs To Get An MBA From A Top Business School). And not surprisingly, the big brand schools often have the biggest price tags. An MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business now has an overall cost of $243,082 for two years of tuition, living expenses, and fees.
Stern is followed by Stanford Graduate School of Business ($239,928), Dartmouth Tuck School of Business ($237,630), Columbia Business School ($237,554), and MIT ($235,996). Of the 14 schools now in the $200K club, the newest member is Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management, where cost increased about 2% from 2020 to $203,370. Three more schools are knocking on the door with costs in the $195K range.
‘I WOULD LOVE TO GO BUT CAN’T JUSTIFY THE PRICE’
While scholarship money helps to lower the overall costs of an MBA program, there is no assurance that an applicant can get a discount. So it’s a no-brainer for candidates, particularly from low-to-middle-income families, to fret over the cost of the degree, even after going through the marathon to get into an MBA program.
Just consider how much debt, on average, MBAs at top schools acquire. TIn the Poets&Quants Top 25, 15 schools graduate MBAs with six-figure debt, with the highest amount at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — a whopping $145,186 — followed by USC Marshall School of Business ($140,107), MIT Sloan School of Management ($135,588), NYU Stern School of Business ($128,953), and Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business ($128,373). The highest non-estimated MBA debt average is at Duke Fuqua School of Business, which comes in at $119,125 (see MBA Debt Burden: The Embarrassing Data Point That B-Schools Stopped Reporting).
Following up on the post from the applicant with cold feet, one active candidate after another expressed similar concerns. Yet another candidate claims he is in the same boat. He says he has been accepted into a T15 program and will have to take out loans that will ultimately cost him nearly $200,000. “I would love to go, but can’t justify the price knowing that I will have to take a job that pays $120K+ or I’m fucked — even if I hate said job,” writes RealLifeIsBetter. “I’m leaning towards not going and applying to lower-ranked and lower-cost schools. The debt just puts me on edge and it feels like a straight gamble that could ruin at least a decade of my life if it doesn’t pan out.”
‘IF I WENT TO AN M7 WITH NO SCHOLARSHIP, I’D BE ON EDGE 24/7’
Some chose the strategy of applying to lower-ranked business schools in the hope that they would get more scholarship dollars to offset the cost of their MBA programs. “I come from a low income family as well but now make post-MBA money,” replied PizNoFlame on the Reddit post. “The opportunity cost is too high for me to attend a school without full/heavy scholarships. If I went to M7 with no scholarship, I’d be on edge 24/7 at the half-million-dollar opportunity cost and it would entirely bleed my savings. I’d be forced to go to my ‘comfort’ area of consulting and take a job that I hate for financial reasons. Instead, I’m aiming for lower ranked schools where I can likely get a full-tuition scholarship. I can then truly use the two years as self discovery to find a career path that I like.”
Or as another poster put it: “All top programs, especially in the US, are extremely expensive for someone coming with no family (or other) support. The thought of having the responsibility of paying back that huge amount of debt is absolutely jittering! I’d want to pay off my debt in a span of 3-4 years max. I’ve come to conclusion that prestigious schools are merely for a small percentage of people. I’ve been looking at cost-friendly schools known for a great ROI. Added advantage if they offer their own accommodation, saves quite a lot.”
An MBA, who graduated from a top 15 program in 2016, left school $130,000 in debt. Yet, he has few qualms about the burden that debt imposes on him. “My loans are about $1k per month minimum payment,” concedes BucksBrew. “This made sense for me given I went from $60k pre-MBA to $120k post-MBA, though I did move to a much higher cost of living city which offsets some of that gap.”
‘FRANKLY, THE $130K I BORROWED FOR MY MBA IS NOT SOMETHING I THINK ABOUT MUCH’
Still, he has few worries. “Overall it’s frankly not something I think about much, the money automatically comes out of my account each month. The only real downside is that I’m now locked into having to make six figures every year to afford my loan payments so it’s higher risk and gives me less flexibility until the loan is paid off.”
Another alum conceded that he went into even more debt—and does not regret it. Among other things, he notes that he gained more than $50,000 from is summer internship and his signing bonus.“On the one hand,” wrote Brandon432,” I had a working spouse who could almost cover our living expenses, and a little bit of savings. On the other hand, we had a kid, no scholarship, and lived in a HCOL (high-cost-of-living) city. I paid sticker at an M7, graduated with $180k in loans, worked at MBB for 4 years, spouse got a big promotion, had more kids, bought a house in the same HCOL, and was in position to pay off the loans ~4.5 years post-grad. We put 75% of bonuses and raises to loans and kept the rest in the form of lifestyle improvement.”
TK has a reasonable outlook on what is a tough decision for many. “I went in with some very similar concerns, but I decided to go to a T20 with no scholarship, based entirely on potential for income growth,” he wrote. “In your case, it seems like that’s less of a benefit, but it’d depend on the school you get into and what you expect for your career in the future without an MBA. If you think could get into a T20 or higher, then you’re probably going to get much more benefit than a T50 (even if you’re paying sticker price).”
‘IT MADE A LOT OF SENSE FOR ME TO GO FOR IT’
But he did his homework. “Before applying,” he added, “I gauged what schools I had a reasonable shot at getting into based on my work history, undergrad GPA, and GMAT score. I then dove deep into their employment data. Of those schools, I only considered those where there was a historically high rate of employment (minimum 93%) and the median salary (no bonus) was at least 50% more than the average of annual gross at my previous job. I used smartasset’s paycheck calculator to get a rough idea of the difference in my take home pay post MBA (assuming a 5% increase in cost of health insurance and no increase in my contributions to my IRA) for each school.
“Using that information, I determined that I could increase my take home by ~20% post-MBA and still pay off my student loans in 4-7 years, depending on the school. So, I decided to go for it. But my income in my previous role was pretty thoroughly capped since I was in a niche industry and was highly unlikely to get promoted again in the next 5-10 years. And my average annual raise (including promotions) was nowhere near 20% (the effective increase in my take home for the first 4-7 years), so it made a lot of sense for me to go for it.”
Well said, for an MBA grad.