Is an MBA Worth It?

a woman at her desk pondering if an mba is worth it

Is an MBA worth it? Right now, most traditional MBAs aren’t. But some MBAs still are, depending on your situation. With that in mind, there are a lot of factors to consider before you completely write off doing a Master of Business Administration.

MBAs are traditionally positioned as degrees that better prepare you for business management skills and that make graduates more competitive in applying for leadership roles, or to crack into popular and high-paying industries, like tech, high-finance, and consulting.

However, there’s a recent declining interest in MBAs, even as applicant numbers are rising with economic stress. The main concern is that they aren’t able to keep pace with technological innovations that are changing the way businesses run. Beyond that, costs for traditional programs can be high—we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So, with all that in mind, the real question we should be asking is…which MBA programs are worth it?

Which MBA Programs Are Worth it?

Before you can know whether an MBA is worth it, you need to ask: what does an MBA get you? As we detail extensively in our general post about MBAs, here are the commonly cited benefits:

  1. Coursework and skills development
  2. Higher income potential/earning power
  3. Networking opportunities
  4. Higher employment rate
  5. Access to higher-paying roles

But the fact is that not all of these benefits are still true, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you choose a program that’s not right for you, you may end up on the losing side of the risk/reward equation. After all, not all MBA programs are made the same, as there are degrees that may very well be more tailored to your career interests, or perhaps, frankly, none at all!

Here’s the rundown on the pros and cons of different MBA programs right now, as well as who they might be worth it for.

The Value of a Full-Time MBA

A full-time MBA generally is crafted for those with 2+ years of post-bachelor’s work experience. These are the traditional MBAs that most people picture, involving coursework guided by a core curriculum, team capstones, and an MBA thesis supported by faculty. Full-time MBA programs are typically two years, but sometimes the two-year curriculum is squeezed into one-year programs, making for a much more intense experience.

In 2021, a full-time MBA may not have the same weight as it did even two years ago. We’re not living in normal times. You won’t be able to count on a lot of the benefits of a traditional full-time MBA program for your career, given the economic uncertainty that’s accompanying the pandemic and the resulting rise in applicants. It’s hard to say what the hiring process will look like for professionals a year from now.

Also, given that most traditional MBA programs aren’t meeting in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the huge price tag that comes attached means that you’re getting a lot less value than you normally would. No in-person classes, far less networking, scarce internship opportunities…

There are a few exceptions, of course. Two big factors to take into consideration are rankings and scholarships. A top business school degree (think: Harvard, Wharton) will almost always be an asset, coming with huge opportunities and higher earning potential, even in a terrible job market. And if you can offset the price with scholarships (or employer help), the math just might add up.

That’s not snobbery—it’s based on data. And the data on top-10 programs is abundant (average MBA salaries hovering around $173,860 on average), but it’s a little more diffuse with other programs. When looking at all MBA programs, the average falls sharply to $106,757. And keep in mind that’s the average across all programs; it’s weighted by those higher salaries from top-10 graduates.

The Value of a Joint-degree MBA

Joint-degree programs typically combine the traditional MBA with a traditional program in another field, such as an MD or Master in Public Policy, to allow candidates to build expertise at the intersection of business and the other field in question. Joint-degrees typically last the same amount of time minus one year of the combined length of the programs. Because joint-degrees are more expensive than the traditional MBA alone, the cost-benefit analysis is arguably more critical, especially in these times.

In general, joint-degree programs are best for those who have a more defined post-MBA career path. It may also be worth it if you can find a prestigious fellowship (ahem) or scholarship to offset the cost.

The Value of a Part-Time MBA

Although part-time MBAs lack many of the networking benefits of a full-time MBA and it’s hard to qualify for a grant or scholarship for these programs, they do provide access to some alumni networks and on paper (i.e. your CV), there is virtually no difference between a part-time and full-time MBA. A part-time MBA is worth it for those who need the degree itself for a particular purpose, such as getting a promotion in their current company, and can take on the financial burden without going into significant debt.

The Value of Online MBA Programs

Although there could be an argument for ALL MBA programs qualifying as online MBA programs these days, true online MBA programs are meant to be conducted in an online setting. Whether an online MBA is worth it depends entirely on the program itself in terms of the education and opportunities it offers you. This option is most valuable to students who need flexibility and are assured of their program’s quality and offerings. If you’re considering getting an online MBA, make sure to connect with alumni, as rankings can only tell you so much in the new landscape.

Is an MBA Worth It? A Summary

Any MBA program is a big investment. Here’s when they’re worth it:

  • Traditional MBA: You get into one of the top schools and scholarships absorb some of the cost
  • Joint MBA program: You have a particular career goal in mind that requires both degrees
  • Part-time MBA: You need the degree for a specific reason that does not rely on networking or recruiting opportunities
  • Online MBA: You need a flexible option and can verify that the program is well-adapted to online platform

Of course, earnings potential isn’t the only benefit of an MBA. On their own websites, MBA programs also highlight tangential benefits like increased confidence, better personal financial management, time-management skills, and broader worldview, but the data they used to gather such insights tends to focus on the gains in the careers and skills of those who ultimately decided to get an MBA. In other words, for those that decided it was worth it, it ended up being worth it.

What is missing from their research are the trajectories of those who decided on an MBA alternative, but those data are inherently hard to come by – as we don’t have a reliable A/B test to understand what would have happened had they gone a different route. That means that MBA programs say MBAs are worth it, but you should definitely dig deeper to make sure they’re right for you.

🎥 Still on the fence? Watch this interview with a GMAT student about why he decided to pursue an MBA, his study plan, and top tips to get into his target program.

Ready to get an awesome GMAT score? Start here.

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