B-Schools: Should You Go for It?

Here's how to decide whether pursuing an MBA the right move for you

You're ambitious, smart, and ready to move up the ladder. Trouble is, with a wavering economy and a lousy job market, the next rung may be out of reach. Times like these are exactly when many people in the business world head for B-school. Indeed, applications are up 30% or more over the past two years. You have until April to apply for programs starting in the fall. So if you want to apply, you have to decide now: Is it the right time to get an MBA?

There's no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. You have to honestly assess your reasons for wanting an MBA, weigh the changing job market for B-school grads, and figure out if you can financially manage two years in school and out of the workforce. In general, if you've notched several years of solid experience in a field and could use an extra edge to take you to the next level, you might be at the point in your career when it makes sense to commit to an MBA program. If your résumé is ho-hum or you can't afford not to work, you might be better served by polishing your skills in the job market first.

NO RICHES IN SIGHT. First, keep in mind that an MBA isn't the quick ticket to a six-figure salary that it used to be. "An MBA will not jump-start an otherwise moribund career," says Rosemaria Martinelli, admissions director at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. So if making oodles of money is the top reason for attending B-school, you might be disappointed. Feeling trapped in your current job is not a good reason to apply either, adds Martinelli.

Nor do dismal job prospects mean you should jump at the MBA. "I don't want to go back to school just because it's a bad economy," says Marcella Maurer, 28, a former marketing manager at a startup. Maurer, laid off and looking for work for the past three months, has found that many jobs she applies for require an MBA. Still, she's holding off, at least until she has a clear idea of how--and when--the degree will help her the most. That doesn't mean you should skip B-school altogether. Rather, you should wait until you are certain your reasons for attending are solid.

One way to help determine that: Ask yourself if you have enough real-world seasoning to contribute to the fast-paced, in-depth classroom discussions. If you don't, wait a year--or even longer--to apply. At most B-schools, you'll need at least some experience, usually a minimum of two years, to get accepted. But if you've spent those two years in a low-level job, with little opportunity to hone your business acumen, you might want to delay applying until you've fattened your skills portfolio and can make an earnest contribution in class.

WHEN TO GO FOR IT. Let's say you are ready for B-school. Make sure the degree fits into your long-term career goals, not just your five-year plan. If you've got enough job experience and you aren't overloaded with debt, now might actually be the best time to hunker down and apply. Maybe you've already taken the Graduate Management Admission Test, a prerequisite for admittance. If not, you'll need to take it within a few weeks of sending in your applications. If you don't think you'll have time to do your applications justice or prep for the GMAT, hold off until next year. Sloppy applications usually make their way to the reject pile--quickly.

Perhaps you are a strong candidate, likely to be admitted to a top-notch school but still undecided on whether to apply. In that case, go for it. You're not leaving much behind--raises are small and promotions scarce. "The opportunity cost is so much lower in this type of economy," says Sharon Hoffman, MBA program director at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

The cost of financing that degree is attractive, too. Interest rates on education loans are at historic lows. Same goes for home-equity lines, which a growing number of MBAs use to pay for school. Both give an edge to attending now, and not later; you'll face a shorter payoff time and smaller payments after graduation.

Even so, two years at a top B-school will run $60,000 or more in tuition alone, plus books and living expenses, not to mention forgone wages. All told, the price tag could be $150,000. "The big obstacle is going without a salary for two years," says Adam Cohen, an investment banker who has put off B-school. Nor is he crazy about amassing $100,000 in loans--about the maximum you can borrow--even though he believes an MBA would further his career.

If you're planning to finance your degree with loans, you'll first need to clean up your personal balance sheet. It's best to pay down credit cards and consumer and auto loans before you take on B-school debt. Waiting another year could help you rid yourself of debt and save a little extra.

The MBA may not be the dollar magnet it used to be, but it's still a valuable degree. "The education has become even more relevant as we've been increasingly beset by troubles in the business world," says Wharton's Martinelli. Indeed, when the economy improves, corporations will likely pay up for premium people.

By Jennifer Merritt

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