An MBA that gets you a cool million in performance bonus your first year out of school? Dreams do come true!
One Stanford Graduate School of Business graduate reported the gaudy number — that’s right, $1,000,000 — in the school’s newly released employment report. Most surprisingly, while the mystery MBA does work in finance, he or she doesn’t work in private equity, venture capital, or investment management — three fields more typically associated with big, gaudy salaries and bonuses.
Stanford released its new jobs report Wednesday (January 19), showing an increase for the seventh straight year in average base salary, as well as increases in median salary and average expected performance bonus. But GSB also reports ranges for salaries and bonuses, and that’s where we often find the most interesting numbers. This year, investment management grads reported signing bonuses between $30K and $75K, for example, while healthcare MBAs reported expected performance bonuses of $8,550 to $200K. In base salary, both private equity and venture capital-bound Stanford graduates — comprising more than a quarter of the class — reported upper ranges of $300K for their starting salaries.
But one number dwarfs them all. Under the finance umbrella, which accounts for one-third of the Class of 2021, the expected bonus range is $20,000 to $1,000,000. Where does this top-performer work? Interestingly, the upper ranges for investment management, PE, and VC — the only three finance sub-categories for which data is shown in expected performance bonuses — have upper ranges well below $1M.
Investment management grads (4% of the class) report an expected performance bonus range between $24K and $250K; PE grads between $35K and $325K; and VC grads between $20K and $225K. So where does the mysterious million-dollar MBA work?
Probably in the Northeast, where Stanford reports a performance bonus average that seems most likely to have benefited from adding $1 million from a single source. The average expected bonus for that region — which, of course, includes New York and Boston — is more than $123K, compared to averages of $63K for the Mid-Atlantic and $35K for the Midwest. The only other detail we know: He or she is a graduate with permanent U.S. work authorization — in other words, a U.S. citizen.
That’s where the clues end. Is the millionaire MBA a highly experienced professional who was rewarded in their return to a previous employer?
“It’s hard to know if it’s a function of who reports or if that’s really an outlier, but that certainly was notable,” says Jamie Schein, assistant dean and director of Stanford’s Career Management Center.
WE HAVE SEEN THIS BEFORE — RARELY
In 2014, Poets&Quants commissioned a study that found that an MBA can make you a millionaire several times over across the course of your career. A study from the Graduate Management Admission Council concluded the same in 2016. But in the first year out of school? How common is it to get a bonus — let alone a base salary — of $1 million?
We’ve seen it before — but rarely. In 2014, both a MIT Sloan grad and a Columbia MBA reported eclipsing $1M in total compensation, the former by virtue of a combined pay package at a real estate firm and the latter via a $1 million signing bonus at a consulting firm. But we have also seen schools get it wrong on the reporting side, as Imperial did in 2012.
Complicating comparisons is the fact that most schools do not report performance or “other” bonuses, and when they do, they tend not to offer much in the way of granular detail. MIT Sloan, Northwestern Kellogg, and Penn Wharton don’t report the number; Harvard reports only a median, not a range. Like many other schools, Chicago Booth reports only a base salary range.
One other top B-school, Columbia, does report the range of “other” compensation. This year the top bonus for a CBS grad was $300K for someone in investment banking/brokerage.
A REALISTIC EXPECTATION?
MBAs can make many millions over the course of their careers. But it’s basically unheard of for an MBA to earn even half a million immediately post-graduation. This year, the highest median salary at Harvard was in private equity ($160,000), in which 14% of the Class of 2021 found work; HBS lists a 75% base number of $178,750. Wharton lists the median for “Financial Services: Private Equity/Buyouts/Other” as $167,500, and the 75% base as $200,000. Northwestern Kellogg reports a high salary for all MBAs at $285K, with consulting boasting the highest median at $165K. And Chicago Booth reports a high base salary of $225K for someone in — you guessed it — PE.
Overall median salaries everywhere have hit a ceiling at $160K — for the moment. But monster compensation packages generally don’t break the bank on base salary — the devil is in the year-end guaranteed bonuses. In 2020, for example, a Stanford MBA who took a job in private equity reported an expected performance bonus of $400,000 – a sum that does not include potential tuition reimbursement, relocation expenses, auto allowances, profit sharing, stock, or stock options. That bonus alone was more than the base salary of all but one Stanford Class of 2020 grad — another (or the same?) MBA who reported a base salary of $400K. Imagine: If that is the same student, he or she made $800K in salary and performance bonus alone.
When prospective applicants see these numbers, then see a Stanford grad reporting a performance bonus of $1M in 2021, how realistic is it to envision themselves achieving the same?
“I think all you have to do is compare the range to the mean and median to see really how much of an outlier that is,” Schein says. The mean and median performance bonus of a Stanford MBA in 2021: $78,373 and $37,750, respectively.