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Is business school worth it?

Nicole Goodkind
Nicole Goodkind

Is business school worth it?

It's a fair enough question considering the average cost of one year at a top-ten MBA program is currently $58,554 in the U.S., not including opportunity cost (lost income). Taking two years off from the professional world during the height of working years is a scary proposition to say the least.

As the peak of the recession fades from view and more jobs become available, less people in the U.S. seem to be ready to take on that risk. Applications to business school have dropped off significantly with elite institutions like The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania seeing a 12% decrease over four years (as of 2013).

It's not only Wharton feeling the pinch as applicants dry up. Schools like Harvard are lowering their application barriers to attract more potential students. In order to gain admission to the fabled program one decade ago a prospective MBA had to complete eight essays, today there is one and it's optional. Columbia Business School is asking its applicants to sum up their career goals in just 75 characters.

Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett says that focusing on the number of applicants isn't the right way to fix business school in the U.S. It's about offering students more. He compares business school to the retail industry. Sure there's a lot of competition online but if a store offers a "richer, better and deeper" experience it still does well. Garrett believes that the pressure is good for the current business school model. "It forces us to focus on the real value add of an on-campus degree," he says. "It can't just be the credential and the stamp."

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Business school students are finance-minded and are certainly looking for strong ROIs. According to a study by The Economist, top schools like Harvard currently return about 14.8% on investment one-year out. Wharton returns 6.3% and a good public business school like Wisconsin returns 20.8%. In order to increase ROI and appeal to value-minded students, many business schools are creating part-time programs that allow students to hold full-time jobs.

Elite graduate business schools like Wharton and Columbia currently offer weekend programs, and schools like Wake Forest and Virginia Tech have nixed their full-time programs all together. Garrett believes that this is a trend that is here to stay. "MBAs that allow people to stay in full-time employment are going to be increasingly attractive," he says. "Why? Because the opportunity cost of stepping out of a career is increasingly high."

Garrett believes that business programs are necessary for those who want to move past the technical aspects of their jobs and into more theoretical leadership positions. "Anyone who wants to be in business and wants that value add of not just being a technician but being a leader should consider business school," he says.

While MBAs aren’t exactly recession-proof, Garret believes that, “if you look over careers, starting salary is just so much higher [with an MBA] and career progression just looks so much better. I think that's going to be the case for the long haul.”

He believes that on-campus MBA programs will remain relevant If they continue to provide, “interpersonal interactions in the classroom,” and “tie our students in with firms while they're still students and give them international experiences.”

Correction: This article previously stated that Georgia Tech had stopped offering a full-time MBA program. That was wrong, Georgia Tech currently offers a 2-year program.

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