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It's harder than you think to estimate the cost of a Harvard MBA

Harvard Business School students cheer during their graduation ceremonies in Boston, Massachusetts following Harvard University’s 358th Commencement June 4, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

This post originally appeared in Poets & Quants.

Estimating the actual cost of a Harvard Business School MBA is a lot harder than you might think. It’s not unlike sitting down with your accountant in tax season and going over every possible deduction you can take.

Wherever you end up, it’s not cheap–and the latest tuition numbers are bound to shock people, though there is some explanation for why annual base tuition at HBS jumped by 13.1% this year to $72,000 from $63,675 (see the rising blip in the chart below). The school reallocated all non-course and program materials costs to the tuition category as opposed to including them in the “course and program materials fee” category. “So, the totals remain the same, but the allocation is different,” explains a spokesperson for the school. “A matter of accounting, if you will. The increase in tuition and course and program materials fee together is actually 4% and consistent with increases in past years.”

For the year-earlier class, course and program fees were $7,960. For this year’s incoming class, those fees are $2,500. But that leads us to another critical issue in the cost of a Harvard MBA. Fees beyond the base tuition play a big role in the total costs of the education and then you have to double them to account for the two-year program.

So incoming MBA students in the fall of 2017 can expect to pay a total of $144,000 in tuition over the two years. But that is just the beginning. There’s another $5,000 in course fees and materials, $6,620 in health insurance, an estimated $26,388 for your room and utilities on campus, and finally another $29,668 for food, drinks and other incidentals.

So for a single student this year, the total comes to a mind-numbing $213,600. At least that’s the official sticker price. Harvard has a strategy to price its MBA program at the mid-point of peer schools such as Stanford, Wharton, Northwestern Kellogg, Chicago Booth, Columbia Business School, and MIT Sloan.

Annual cost of a Harvard Business School MBA

With annual tuition now set at $72,000 for incoming students in the Class of 2019, an MBA from Harvard Business School isn’t cheap. Add in the other costs, not including forgone wages, and the total comes to $106,800 per year—if you don’t take those weekend trips to the Alps or those week-long immersions in Shanghai.

Fewer than half the MBA students at Harvard pay the sticker price

But if you get the average scholarship award of $37,000 a year—half of all HBS students are on scholarship—you could reduce that number to just a shade under $140,000. Harvard parcels out more scholarship dough—$34 million for MBA students last year—than any other business school but does so only based on need—not merit. By the way, students may receive up to $30,000 over the two-year MBA program from an outside scholarship source before the school begins to reduce your HBS fellowship award. So let’s assume you get lucky and win that extra $30K. Add in your internship pay, a median of $16,000 for two months of work, and you get the number down to under $100,000—less than half the advertised sticker price..

And of course, whether you go to school or not, you still have to pay rent and board. So you could reasonably deduct that as well. Add all those deductions together and the orginal bill of $213,600 comes to something like $40,000.

But here’s the rub: Most students find that estimates of their living expenses at business school are very conservative. It’s hard not to go on those weekend ski trips in the Alps or a deep dive into an exotic locale led by a classmate who wants to show off his or her country. After all, you are in business school to also make life-long contacts and build your network. So you don’t want to be cheap on these extra costs. Add at least 20% to the $29,668 in board and living expenses.

Total cost of a Harvard Business School MBA

Multiply the annual cost of an Harvard MBA by the full two years of the program and the total costs come to $213,600 for a single person, excluding scholarships, forgone wages or interest cost on a student loan.

Is it really worth it? Don’t let the price scare you away

And then there is the salary you left behind to go to HBS. These days, Harvard students walk out of jobs paying annual average salaries of $85,000, not including bonuses or other perks. Multiply that by two (because you’re going to want a few weeks at the front end of your first year and the back end after graduation) and that’s an additional $170,000 in opportunity costs. With the 20% add-on for living expenses, that comes to another $176,000. And none of this includes the costs of a loan in origination fees and interest. But we won’t even go there.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. Even beyond an experience that will likely be the most memorable of your life, having an MBA from Harvard on your resume is golden. You’ll learn a ton, forge enduring friendships, get the job you really want, and almost always be thought of as the smartest guy or gal in the room throughout your career. Every return-on-investment analysis makes it a no-brainer.

And there’s something else. For every MBA student Harvard enrolls and educate, it loses money—on everyone. Tuition and fee revenues do not fully re-cover MBA operating expenses at HBS, much less the school’s long-term investments in academic innovation. The shortfall is offset primarily with income from gifts given by alumni and friends. So one way to think about this is that HBS is subsidizing your education, meaning you are getting far more value out of the experience than the money you are putting in. Not a bad deal, anyway you look at it.

Rising annual MBA tuition at Harvard Business School

This year’s incoming class of MBA students at Harvard Business School will face an annual sticker price on the tuition of a whopping $72,000, more than double the rate of 15 years ago when annual tuition was just $30,050. But average scholarship grants—given to roughly half the students—have kept pace. In 2002, the average grant was roughly a third of the tuition at $9,001. Today, it’s roughly half at an estimated $36,995 this year.

Harvard MBA