Before You Double Up On Degrees Think Twice

Getting an MBA from a quality institution can be a two-year battle. So why would any sane individual want to endure what might well be called an MBA for masochists--a joint-degree program that will allow the truly ambitious to earn two advanced degrees simultaneously?

With the hunt for MBA students ever more competitive, business schools are aggressively expanding joint-degree offerings in hopes of attracting hypermotivated people eager to complete grueling courses of study. By doubling up, students can earn two degrees in less time than it would take to gain them separately. They can also chop off about a year's tuition for the second degree.

SCRUTINY. Besides the more typical programs that grant a degree in law or medicine along with an MBA, schools are creating a variety of new combinations. MBAs with manufacturing, nursing, or environmental studies are among the most recent combos, reflecting the growing concern with the business side of these fields. The University of Southern California has come up with one of the quirkiest: an MBA with a PhD in dental surgery.

Before you even consider a dual degree, be forewarned that such programs require far more effort than a straight business diploma. Indeed, simply getting accepted to such programs can be a chore. Most universities require students to apply separately to both the business school and the second school of interest. Admissions directors heavily scrutinize those applications. "We are much more critical of a joint-degree applicant's motivation," says Steve Christakos, director of admissions at Northwestern University's J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. "We want to know why they want both skill sets. On placement, I think companies are doing the same thing."

Once through the doors, you can expect to pay plenty for the privilege of working yourself silly. At Harvard University, it costs $85,960 and four years of study to gain an MBA with a law degree, almost twice as much as an MBA alone (but $20,940 less than if you earned them separately). It must be noted that most joint-degree tracks require one, two, or even three more years to complete than the conventional two-year MBA, forcing joint-degree seekers to pay more in tuition along with the cost of losing a year or more of work.

GRILLING. If you think such a huge investment will land you a higher-paying job, think again. The starting salaries of joint-degree graduates are rarely more than those of their single-degree MBA counterparts, according to placement officials. This year, three 1994 joint-degree graduates out of eight registered their starting salaries with the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business Administration. The average: $58,200, nearly $6,000 less than the average fetched by Darden's MBA grads.

While some students contend that an extra degree broadens the range of opportunity for employment, many have to justify to recruiters why they bothered going for a second diploma. "You are grilled harder in some interviews," says Arlene Houston, who is entering her fourth and final year of a joint-degree track in business and law at Duke University. "You often end up spending a lot of time explaining to recruiters why you're getting both degrees."

That's not surprising since the supply of joint-degree graduates is still low: Only a few hundred students are enrolled in these programs nationwide. Stanford University turned out just 26 graduates with dual degrees this year. Northwestern University graduated 11 students, up from five in 1990.

PROMOTIONS? A recruiter at McKinsey, which typically dangles the largest starting-pay packages in front of MBAs, says that, at best, joint degrees have a "neutral to slightly positive" effect on the consulting firm's choices. She adds that regardless of degree, all campus hires enter the company at the same salary and there is no evidence to indicate that joint-degree holders get promoted faster or hold higher positions.

Other grads, after being in the workforce for a few years, often find a combination degree overkill. "Quite honestly, where I am right now, it's kind of like driving a tack with a sledgehammer," says David Donaldson, owner of the Bysiewicz-Donaldson Agency in Manchester, Conn., and a 1987 graduate of the Duke law and business schools. "If I knew in 1983 that I'd be running an insurance agency in 1995, I probably wouldn't have gotten the second degree."

So why would anyone go through the trouble? "Getting a single degree is confining," believes Joel Tauber, a Southfield (Mich.) manufacturing entrepreneur who received separate MBA and law degrees from the University of Michigan. "It does not give you the ability to broaden your horizon." Tauber recently donated $5 million to the university to launch a manufacturing institute that integrates an MBA with a master's in engineering or manufacturing. Michigan now offers 18 MBA-combo degrees, up from 14 five years ago.

But many grad students enter dual programs as a shortcut to gaining two diplomas. Schools generally shave credits off of their MBA curriculum and the second degree, allowing students to gain a pair of advanced degrees while shortening their academic stints by a year. At the same time, the most successful programs integrate the curriculums of the two schools, letting faculty from both disciplines work together to create innovative courses that merge the two fields.

Sometimes that collaboration really pays off. Bentley Kerr, who received his MBA and master's in real estate development from USC this past spring, is working for a diversified real estate company in Brentwood, Calif., and making about 15% more than the average starting salary for USC's MBA graduates. Kerr, who is one of only three 1995 USC graduates with the MBA and real estate joint degree, says he beat out MBAs from Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles for his job because his employer "valued the second degree. My course of study opened up a whole new set of opportunities." Carlton Harris, who graduated from Duke in 1980 with business and forestry degrees, got five job offers directly after school and attributes his first promotion in 1983 and 15 successful years with Scott Paper in large part to his joint degree.

PRIORITIES. Still, working on a pair of degrees at once is daunting. Paul Hardy, who is now entering his third and final year of an environmental sciences joint-degree program at Michigan, tackled a full load of MBA courses last year along with 27 hours each week devoted to teaching and research at the school of natural resources. "It has always been too much, but it has never reached the point where I felt like bowing out of the program," Hardy says. He's sticking with it because he believes the extra degree will help him advance more quickly in the environmental field.

Things may not work out the way Hardy hopes they will, however. Administrators and graduates say those seeking a second degree largely to beef up their resumes or fast-forward their march through the corporate ranks have their priorities wrong. "I don't think the extra credential makes it worth it. I think the extra knowledge does," says Michigan Business School Dean B. Joseph White. If you're in it for the added material rewards, you're probably wasting your time.

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