Most grad students take out student loans to finance their higher education and can end up saddled with debt running into hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time they graduate. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of federal student loan data for nearly 600 programs, graduates of approximately 98% of universities that offer MBA programs usually made more money two years after graduation than they had borrowed. Contrast this with law schools, where approximately 6% of programs had grads with higher median salaries than debt for the same time period.
There are many reasons that students pursue an MBA – the promise of a significantly higher salary, the ability to enter a new industry, or the pursuit of an executive track to name a few. However, the high cost of getting an MBA, which can range from $100,000 to $250,000 or more after living expenses are added to tuition and fees, can be enough to change many potential students’ minds. Despite the relatively low-interest federal loans available to grad students, the amount that students can borrow is fixed at $41,000, leaving some students with no choice but to take out additional higher-interest (but unlimited) Grad Plus loans. So it is encouraging to potential MBA applicants to see that what has long been thought of as a “no-brainer investment” does essentially pay off.
However, there are other factors which skew the data somewhat. There have been efforts to diversify the applicant pool for business schools, yet a significant proportion of MBA applicants still enter programs with professional experience, often in finance or other high-earning industries, thereby accelerating their career paths and making the post-MBA cohort a financially healthy group. Moreover, the data in the Wall Street Journal’s analysis reflects federal government loan programs and does not include private loans.
Not everyone who graduates with an MBA sees significant increases in salary. According to Paulo Goes, dean of Tulane business school, 2020 grads have had an especially difficult time since a lot of companies stopped recruiting MBA graduates during the pandemic. The impact of this slow-down is seen in graduates’ placements and salaries.
For-profit business schools had a lower rate of students who repaid their loans after two years. Strayer University in Washington, DC had 2% of students fully repay their loans during the two-year period following graduation, with about 33% asking to temporarily stop payments. Strayer students borrowed a median of $74,000, but half of the grads earned less than $57,000 two years post-graduation.
Approximately a dozen other business schools revealed median debt loads that were greater than grads’ median salaries. Several schools stated that this is because students attended their expensive dual-degree programs. Roseman University of Health Sciences reported the highest debt to earnings of any program, with students borrowing a median of $172,000.
Even so, there is much to be gleaned from the data that would make an MBA worth the time and investment. Analysis shows that at several elite programs, including Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the median starting salary after graduation permitted more than half of grads to pay off their federal student loan debt within two years.
Interestingly, some of the most expensive MBA programs had some of the lowest debt load. Graduates of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business borrowed a median of $41,000 in federal loans without turning to more expensive Grad Plus loans. Harvard Business School graduates had a median of $41,000 in debt, and median salaries of about $172,000. According to Chad Losee, Harvard’s managing director of MBA admissions, approximately 56% of the class of 2020 graduated with some debt, averaging $79,000 in combined federal and private loans.
As Poets & Quants points out in its analysis of the Journal’s article, earnings are a reflection of the graduate’s chosen industry and the job’s location. Harvard reported a record pay year with 7% of the latest class taking positions in hedge funds and investment management jobs. The median total compensation for last year’s grads was $203,307, including a median salary of $152,682, sign-on bonuses of $27,500 reported by 54% of grads, and $132,500 in other guaranteed compensation reported by 27% of grads.
It is also worth noting that business schools have been increasing the number of scholarships they award to students over the last decade. Harvard distributes scholarships to defray the cost of its MBA program, distributing $40 million in fellowships to its MBA students last year. Approximately half of the enrolled students received scholarships averaging more than $42,000 per student in fiscal 2020.
P&Q top 10 business schools debt-income ratio
|P&Q Rank and School||Median |
|1. Stanford GSB||$41,000||$163,337||0.25|
|2. Chicago (Booth)||$68,376||$159,442||0.43|
|3. Pennsylvania (Wharton)||$47,275||$175,674||0.27|
|5. Northwestern (Kellogg)||$149,545||$189,565||0.79|
|6. MIT (Sloan)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|8. UC Berkeley (Haas)||$57,297||$171,936||0.33|
|9. Dartmouth (Tuck)||$41,000||$167,295||0.25|
|10. Yale SOM||$69,938||$147,858||0.47|
There seems to be much reassurance in the data that an MBA from a top school will indeed open doors to a lucrative career and allow one to pay off debts sooner than other programs.
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