Financing an MBA, With Help From Mom and Dad

(Deletes the first two paragraphs dealing with Daniel Wesley, the CEO of Wesley said he was a student in the Weekend MBA program at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. A Booth spokesman said no one by Wesley's name was enrolled in the program. Wesley did not respond to multiple requests for comment via email or telephone.)

MBA students wary of taking out loans or getting saddled with debt are increasingly turning to Mom and Dad to help them pay for their MBA degree. With the cost of a two-year business program at a top school easily adding up to $150,000, after factoring in tuition and fees, room and board, and living expenses, a growing number of students say they are using their parents as a funding source, accepting either tuition gifts from them or negotiating interest-free loans.

From 2003 to 2007, the number of prospective students who said they expect their parents to help them pay for business school doubled, and was approaching 40 percent in 2010, according to a 2011 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council. The lingering effects of the economic downturn, coupled with tighter lending standards, have left many students nervous about taking on more student loan debt, says Haley Chitty, a spokesman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The average debt of a college graduate is about $23,000, making the class of 2011 the most indebted class ever, according to the financial aid website

"Any time there is economic uncertainty like there is now, there is a general reluctance to borrow," Chitty says. "Borrowing from Mom and Dad is going to seem a lot safer than borrowing from the government and taking on a loan which likely can't be discharged in bankruptcy and can follow you for the rest of your life."

Vital Funding

For most students, parental support is just one of several funding sources they use to cover the cost of their graduate education; they also depend on loans, personal savings, employer assistance, and grants and fellowships. But recently it has become a more important part of the financing puzzle; on average, prospective students who plan to receive help from their parents expect them to finance 37 percent of the cost of their degree through loans, gifts, or both, GMAC says.

Driving the need for parental aid is an uptick in the business school pipeline of younger students, especially those in the 24-years-and-under age bracket, says Michelle Sparkman-Renz, GMAC's director of research communications. Increasingly, they are interested in one-year specialized degree programs that require little or no work experience, she says. In 2005, only 22 percent of prospective students who took the GMAT exam were younger than 24. Today, 29 percent fall into that age bracket, she notes.

Schools are catching on to the fact that parents are increasingly paying for a significant portion of their adult children's graduate degrees, Sparkman-Renz says, noting that some business programs have information for parents on their websites and even invite them to orientation.

"Parents are really considering higher education, not just the university undergraduate degree but even a graduate degree, as an investment," she says.

The dependence on parental support is most pronounced among younger European and Asian residents, according to GMAC. European students under 24, who gravitate toward the popular one-year business master's degree programs in Europe, use parental resources to fund about 42 percent of the cost of their degree. Meanwhile, Asian students in this demographic expect parents to foot about 46 percent of their tuition bill. Much of this increase is driven by students from China, where more than a third of the GMAT test-takers are under 24, with younger women outnumbering Chinese men by a ratio of 2-to-1, Sparkman-Renz notes.

Full Assistance

U.S. students are less dependent on parental support than their European and Asian counterparts, but those under 24 still expect to finance about 20 percent of their degree with help from family. Students from ages 24 to 30 intend to have parents pay for about 10 percent of their tuition, GMAC says.

Some students are lucky enough to get their parents to pay for the full cost of their MBA, like Kathryn Palmer, 27, a student in Penn State's online MBA program (Penn State Distance MBA Profile). When she was a teenager, she told her mother that she'd rather have her pay for her education than for her wedding. It's a choice she doesn't regret, says Palmer, who is getting married this September and plans a low-key wedding.

"I'm learning now how good my decision was because school is a lot more expensive than a wedding," says Palmer, who works in marketing at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. "A lot of kids I know have loans and I really didn't want to have to graduate with a huge burden like that."

Her mother, Carol Pride, chief information officer at Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort in Uncasville, Conn., says she always intended to help her daughter pay for graduate school if she decided to go that route. The tuition payments are intended to be a gift for her daughter, not a loan, and have not impacted her and her husband's retirement plans, she says.

"I think us paying for school allowed her to be a little more reflective about the schools she could choose from," she says. "We think education is important and that it is something that will be a lifelong differentiator for our children, so we are comfortable investing in it."

Unconventional Ways

Some students use their parents in unconventional ways to help them pay for school. Brooke Henze, 28, and her husband, who both recently graduated from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business(Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile), used their personal savings to pay for their first year of business school. But when it came time to finance the second year of their MBA, she turned to her parents, with whom she co-owns her house, for help.

"We both wanted to go to a top business school, but there was no way we could afford to pay $46,000 each for tuition," she says. "I knew my parents couldn't pay for me, but I thought maybe I can score a deal with them to use a home equity line [of credit]."

Her parents subsequently restructured the mortgage on the home so that Henze and her husband were able to obtain a home equity loan of about $100,000, with an interest rate just 0.75 percent above the prime lending rate. That's far more favorable than typical federal graduate school student loans, which can carry interest rates of nearly 8 percent, she notes. She's confident she'll be able to pay off the loan in the next five years.

"We were thinking outside the box," says Henze, who is now launching a consulting business, Red Wagon Venture.

Spiraling Cost

The spiraling cost of tuition is one of the reasons students may be relying more on parents to pay for business school, says Dan Thibeault, president and co-founder of Graduate Leverage, a student loan consolidation and debt management company in Waltham, Mass. Of the MBA students he works with, about 15 percent to 20 percent have $150,000 worth of debt when they graduate, he says.

"That was unheard-of five or six years ago. Maybe a student in a four-year dental program would borrow that much, but for a student to come out of a two-year MBA program with that much debt is almost shocking," he says. "It may lead a sympathetic parent to say, 'Wow, that is a suffocating amount of debt. I have to get involved.' "

Increasingly, financial aid officers at business schools are trying to help students curb the amount of debt they take on to finance their education. At Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business (Tuck Full-Time MBA Program), Assistant Dean of Administration Steven Lubrano says the school has made a conscientious effort this year to minimize the student debt load, asking applicants to explore other avenues of financing before taking out loans. For some students, that may mean asking Mom and Dad for help, he says.

"It is a major concern for us, frankly, and we are more and more cautious about students taking on too much debt," Lubrano says. "Historically, we would probably be more flexible, but this year is the first time we are being strict about debt limits. We're asking students to have more skin in the game and invest in their education by using more of their personal resources."