How to Pick an MBA Program

by Kevin on June 4, 2009

Yesterday I started my last class for my MBA program. It’s hard to believe, but the last two years have really flown by. (Of course I didn’t feel like that most of the time.)

I plan to share a few of my thoughts about my MBA experience in case any of my readers out there are considering graduate school. I figure for the most part my experiences will apply not just to MBA programs, but to all types of grad school.

Factors for Identifying an MBA Program

Here are some basic requirements to think about as you search for your MBA program:

1. Entry Requirements

You’ve got to be able to get into the school in the first place, right? Some schools will accept anyone while others require 4+ years of work experience and a high score on the GMAT. You don’t necessarily want to go to the school that accepts everyone because employers know they’ll accept anyone.

2. Location

If you are currently settled in a city it would best serve you to find a program within your city. With the real estate market very weak in some areas, moving to a new location to start your program could be impossible if you needed to sell your house. If you are a renter your flexibility increases dramatically. But you knew that, right? You’re a renter.

Also consider location in terms of what job opportunities you are targeting. Would you move from the deep south up to Chicago for an MBA program if a.) you knew you really wanted to live in the south, or b.) the jobs you were targeting would be away from Chicago? Granted you can always move to a new city again after your program, but it should be easier to find a job in the city that your program is located in simply because you will have lived there for a few years. Also factor in that employers will be much more familiar with a school down the street from them than one across the country.

3. Financial Cost

As you might expect this is a huge consideration and can vary greatly. Are you willing to sign up for $100,000 in student loans, or are you hoping to pay as you go?

The cost of tuition isn’t the only factor to consider either. What about the difference in rent from where you currently live to where the program is located? Is the cost of living significantly higher (or lower) than where you currently live?

A major consideration for us was the potential loss of my full-time income. We weren’t willing to shoulder six figure student loans while also living off of my wife’s salary (assuming she could find a job if we moved). Even if you “only” make $30,000 per year, taking two years off costs you a significant amount of money. Add that $60,000 to the $100,000 in loans and suddenly you are really in the hole — that super job you land coming out of the program may not ever pay you back for the difference in pay and debt.

When I first started the program we were tossing around the idea of buying a home. Turns out we did just that — but if I remember correctly we had made a decision on my MBA first. Again, selling a home to move to a MBA program isn’t going to be easy in the current economic conditions.

4. Reputation and Accreditation

Do you want the Ivy league experience, or are you targeting something smaller and local where you could potentially keep working? What about online programs?

You’ve got to factor in the reputation of the school. Going back to my first point — if they let everyone in, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. That could bring down the quality of the graduate leaving the program in eyes of future employers. Even if you were the best of the best in that program employers might see it as the best of the average students at that school.

Accreditation is also really important. Simply put you probably don’t want to go to a school that isn’t accredited.

5. Opportunity Cost and Sacrifices

One last major consideration is opportunity cost.

This goes hand in hand with the financial consideration. If you leave your current career to go back to school full-time  you end up not only sacrificing the income of your job, but you also miss out on two years of career advancement and development.

Consider the sacrifice of moving to a new city: leaving friends and jobs behind, leaving a home behind, possibly moving away from family and a safety net.

Deciding on a Graduate Program is Not an Easy Decision

Remember anything worth is difficult and requires sacrifice. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about how I went about making my decision, and what I ended up deciding. It’s been a fun ride and I hope my experience can help you make an informed decision.

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Mr. ToughMoneyLove June 4, 2009 at 9:00 am

Congrats on arriving at the home stretch. I know it had to be tedious. Your readers should also consider Plan B which is not to get an MBA at all. They could start by reading the essay “Just Say No to a Business Degree” at Enlightening.

Katie Wettstein June 4, 2009 at 9:04 am

Another alternative is to go part-time online. I know it’s not ideal for everyone, but it’s ideal for me. I’m currently enrolled at UMass Amherst, and I never have to go to their campus. I’m working full-time toward my doctoral degree in gerontology at the University of Kentucky and planning a wedding down here too. It just works best for me, and perhaps for those with full-time jobs in areas where they don’t want to or can’t get an MBA. By the way, my diploma will not say that it was an online degree…thank goodness!

The Happy Rock June 4, 2009 at 9:41 am

I would mention the overall approach to learning. Is it hands one? Lecture? Cooperative? Online?

Some people connect and desire a certain approach and are bored to tears with others.

MBA’s also have certain concentration paths which may or may not offer something you want like say entrepenuership.

Sonny June 4, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I wish I could say I was close to being done but I have a good year ahead of me in my MBA program. I picked my program by location and cost mainly. I work full time and the school is 30 minutes away from my home. My company wasn’t going to pay for me either so keeping costs low were important. The school is a state school and it has a good reputation but nothing like an Ivy League University.

Kevin June 5, 2009 at 7:36 pm

@TML: Yes! Excellent point… I actually planned to write something about this for next week. Stay tuned.

@Katie: I think the online programs really depend on the school. If it’s a “regular” school then that can work (as your example speaks to). Compared to The University of Phoenix… which isn’t a good idea period.

@The Happy Rock: Good point. Maybe I’ll do a follow up post.

@Sonny: Sounds good — I wrote an explanation of why I picked my school today (as a follow up to this post).

leigh June 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

you know, i took the opposite approach for graduate school. i picked up, moved halfway across the country, kept renting, sacrificed financially, went to an internationally-renowned university, dealt with a new local culture, no intent to stay when i graduate (no jobs anyway), have no problem with university recognition when i apply for jobs elsewhere (in a top-5 ranked program), and had it all paid for.

key point is that last one… some of us phd-track types get a paycheck to go to grad school. it’s a pretty lame one, but it’s better than negative income via student loans.

sometimes ya just gotta leap. look first, but leap. else i would have spent the rest of my life wondering what i might have missed out on by not taking that chance.

Kevin June 22, 2009 at 8:56 pm

@leigh: The PhD thing does make all the difference. That’s a long track to commit to though. Two years versus what… 2 years Masters and 4 years PhD?

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