Balancing Cupid and Classwork

It's no easy trick to maintain a relationship amid the hardships of a demanding MBA program

Twenty-six-year-old Jill Matthews makes a point to get home to her apartment every night for dinner. "I try not to have meetings at night," she says. She isn't a consultant or an investment banker. In fact, she isn't even employed. She's an MBA student at Washington University's Olin School of Business, and when she's rushing home, it's to meet her husband, who followed her in 1999 to St. Louis, where he now works. This spring after graduation, they'll move back to Texas, where they lived before she started B-school.

Few organizations keep track of how many MBAs are married -- the Graduate Management Admissions Council recently reported for the first time that 39.4% of MBAs have tied the knot -- but B-schools say it's clear that the number of married students is on the rise. At the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, more married students have enrolled in recent years, says Director of Admissions Sabrina White. At Notre Dame's Mendoza School of Business, 24% of MBAs are married, compared to just 12% in 1992. Columbia University's Business School has noted an increase in married applicants, too. In fact, MBAs are flooding the office of married-student housing with applications.

With MBA programs enrolling an older crowd recently -- the average MBA in a top program is 28 -- more students are married than ever before. At Notre Dame, Hayden Estrada, director of MBA admissions, says that the average age of applicants has moved up about two years since 1992. Indeed, the overall median age of first marriages is now 25 years old for women and 26.7 for men, both well below the average age of an MBA. Linda Meehan, director of admissions at Columbia, says she thinks that the increase in married students is in part due to a greater number of applications from people from outside the U.S., where marriage rates are higher.


  That means MBAs are stretched between home activities and class meetings more than ever before. "I'm finding it very difficult to [juggle] my studies and my married life," says Rakesh Bhatia, 29, a second-year MBA at Tulane's B-school. He returned to Louisiana this January with a bride, Radhika, 24, from an arranged marriage in Jammu, India. "[With Rakesh at school,] it is very difficult," says Radhika. "But he comes home to have lunch in the afternoon, and again in the evening, so we are able to manage." Because of the difficulties, Rakesh doesn't recommend getting married during an MBA program: "It's too hectic. If you're going to do it, do it after an MBA." And after making the dean's list in his first year, it's now harder to meet professors' expectations, he adds.

Most MBA programs have some kind of club for married MBAs. At the University of Michigan Business School, the student-run Spouses & Significant Others Group (SOS) holds family parties and workshops and organizes babysitting so that couples can escape for evenings. At Columbia, the school's Joint Venture organization runs the school's programs for spouses and significant others. And Notre Dame's student-run Family Life Committee aims to include spouses in campus activities as much as possible.

Some B-schools also offer clubs for gay and bisexual students. Open for Business, a club at Michigan, works to encourage prospective MBAs to consider the school because of its accepting atmosphere. Club President Dudley Snyder, 28, says there "are definitely differences among business schools." He adds that if a gay or bisexual prospective student has "a hard time finding a group, it would be a bad sign."


  Students with non-MBA spouses and couples who are both in B-school face the same problem: finding time to spend together. Few rankings consider how active the school is in fostering relationships during B-school. That puts the onus on prospective MBAs to pump current students for information if they want the skinny. That's what one Venezuelan married couple living in Mexico City did. "There aren't many [married] couples pursuing an MBA together," says the husband, who asked that he and his wife not be named since they have not told their employers they plan to leave for B-school. "We didn't know where to apply."

After talking with MBA couples from different schools, the duo, both 25 years old, decided to apply to the University of California at Los Angeles' Graduate School of Management, as well as UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. They also submitted applications at New York University's Stern School of Business and the Darden School at the University of Virginia. But no matter where they looked, one consensus held constant: "Everyone told us that it will be more tough" [as a married couple at B-school]. That's because even if they are accepted to the same business school, the chances of them sharing a class schedule are slim. "We may not see each other as much," the husband admits.

Darys Estrella, 32, brought her husband, Andy Wilson, to Michigan's B-school from New York City, along with their two children. In Ann Arbor, Wilson stays at home with the kids. "There are times when I feel like a single parent," he says. "You're at your wit's end, but know that this is not forever." This summer, he and the kids will drive Estrella to New York, where she'll intern for Goldman, Sachs & Co. "I lobbied hard to stay [in Ann Arbor] this summer," he says. In New York, "we'd probably see her less than we do now."


  Between classes, of course, many MBAs build romantic partnerships from scratch. Karen Vellines and her boyfriend, Scott Buelter, met in the first semester of their first year at the University of California at Irvine. "We understood when the other was going out to a study group," she says. They've now co-founded Web-based antique furniture seller in Newport Beach, Calif., and while they aren't married yet, they do plan on it when they "have time." Students from other countries add that having a partner during B-school can actually help reduce some of the pressures of adapting to a new culture and a demanding academic program.

But not all relationships are able to survive B-school. In Vellines' class, five classmates divorced their spouses by the end of the full-time program. "I saw the strain," she says. Because of the tight and varied schedules an MBA faces compared to a working person, the couples really have to make the extra effort to see one another. "Try to include your spouse as much as possible in study groups at coffee shops celebrations with [other MBAs]," she suggests.

The same strain affects students in executive MBA programs, too. These curriculums are geared toward older, more experienced executives who work and study at the same time. That pressure makes Cupid's burnout rate even higher. At London Business School, Inga Pedersen, director of the EMBA program, says she's often called on to counsel her executive students when the academic schedule starts to grind at a relationship. And what does she usually advise? Time-management skills.


  No matter the program, when both partners follow an MBA course, everyone has to be satisfied. Ginger Collins, vice-president of Master's Prep, a Caracas (Venezuela) company that helps grad-school hopefuls choose and apply to B-schools, says applicants should choose a geographic region -- for example Boston, or Washington, D.C. -- "where each [can] apply to several programs." That way, even if both applicants don't meet the bar at the same schools, they will be in the same location. However, "sometimes schools will look at the strengths of one candidate, [and] may back down on some requirements for the other to [encourage] the stronger candidate [to enroll]." For that reason, Collins urges applicants to let admission committees know if they're applying as a couple and also to make it clear that "you are willing to accept their offer even if your spouse is not accepted."

And contrary to popular belief, MBAs do know when it's time to put work aside. On Valentine's Day, Wilson and Estrella will have their kids in tow at a party thrown by SOS at Michigan. Rakesh Bhatia will take Radhika downtown for dinner and present her with "a good gift." Buelter at UC-Irvine has planned a surprise getaway trip for Karen Vellines. And in Mexico City, one couple with an MBA on their minds are hitting a concert to forget for a while about the letters of acceptance they're hoping to receive in March.

By Mica Schneider in New York

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