Is an MBA Worth it? Return on Investment at Top Schools

If you are shopping for business schools, you will not find the best deal at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, or at any of the top tier MBA programs in the country, for that matter. Elite business schools are so expensive that it tends to takes their graduates longer, on average, to profit from their degrees than do those who choose less-selective, more affordable programs, according to Bloomberg Businessweek data.

Stanford MBAs earn back just 18 percent of what they spent on school within a year after graduation, the lowest rate of any top program, according to a calculation of the return on investment at 43 of the top 50 U.S. business schools in Businessweek’s 2014 ranking of the best full-time MBA programs. The ROI measure, which factored in the cost of the program, two years of foregone wages, and the salary bump students get after graduating, did not count toward a school’s overall ranking.

Low returns are not Stanford-specific. At the top eight programs whose tuition tops $120,000, graduates will recoup less than 30 percent of what they invested in school during their first year of post-MBA work. This is partly true because people who go to those schools were making a lot of money in the first place; the typical student at one of these business schools is sacrificing at least $70,0000 per year in income. Still, it remains that students at highly ranked private MBA programs don’t benefit from their degrees as quickly or dramatically as others do.

Compared to the top schools, more modestly priced programs at public universities offer a larger payoff. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a two-year degree costs  out-of-state students $56,000, and the average student earns back nearly 60 percent of what was spent on school within a year after leaving campus. (Wisconsin’s average, it should be noted, was dragged upward by a lucky graduate who left business school with a compensation package of around $1 million.) Even so, because many other students also stood to recoup much of their investment, Wisconsin offered a high median return to students. At Penn State and Purdue, which come with a slightly higher price tag, MBAs get back close to half what they invested in business school the first year after graduation.

One year is a short time frame to measure the value of a degree that people will use for decades-long careers. The calculation may underestimate the worth of a school brand such as Stanford’s—or a school’s alumni network—to a young person embarking on a never-ending professional climb.

So why do students still rush to compete feverishly for the chance to fork over twice the median household income in the U.S. at brand-name schools? (At Stanford, 7,355 applied for 410 spots in 2014.) One reason is that many go to business school less for the potential financial return than from a twentysomething desire to change course. People who have no expertise in business—often given the affectionate, if patronizing nickname “poets” in business school circles—will probably gain the most knowledge from school, regardless of how much money they make later. For artists who want to learn the science of business, the schooling is valuable in itself.

But even the most devoted capitalists among applicants might shrug at the notion that they’re paying top dollar for a degree that won’t much move the needle on their compensation package. Going to business school can be lucrative in ways that don’t show up on a paycheck, at least not right away. An MBA can add heft to a push for promotion. Name recognition and powerful alumni connections matter in an environment that values networking opportunities at least as highly as a degree.

Maybe the point of business school isn’t cash, it’s cachet.