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M.B.A.s from Iowa colleges offer value


M.B.A. degrees are alive and well on Iowa campuses and at Iowa corporations, despite significant declines in enrollment at some of the nation’s elite business schools. A recent article in BusinessWeek magazine reported that the top 30 M.B.A. programs have experienced a 30 percent drop in applications since 1998, with some down more than 50 percent. A number of possible explanations were offered, from skyrocketing tuition costs, hiring shifts that promote internal experience over outside education and stagnating salaries. But the clear implication was that the value of the M.B.A. is eroding.

A closer look at these assumptions and our experience at Iowa State University indicate that the problems of the elite programs are not universal. In fact, the M.B.A. is as valuable as it has ever been in Central Iowa.

Clearly, massive tuition increases have affected the number of student applications. Tuition at top-tier M.B.A. programs now averages more than $67,000 for a two-year program, a 55 percent increase in the last six years. Iowa’s public institutions charge substantially less, despite their own recent tuition hikes. Though Columbia and Stanford recommend that their M.B.A. students budget more than $64,000 per year for tuition and living expenses, a full-time Iowa State M.B.A. student requires less than one-third that amount. It’s no surprise that graduates of the top programs are amassing student loan debt equal to their base salary upon graduation.

A gradual change in hiring policies also is playing a part. Where companies recruited only at top schools 30 years ago, today’s global economy dictates that companies broaden their recruitment efforts. Recruiters come to Iowa in search of students with our unique Midwestern work ethic. Globalization has made our M.B.A. graduates more valuable.

Additionally, businesses are looking to promote talented up-and-comers rather than recruiting external M.B.A. graduates, a trend that bolsters the case for part-time M.B.A. programs that allow students to participate while maintaining their careers full-time. Students and employers report that an undergraduate degree is really a commodity in today’s market. Young professionals who want to become leaders in their organizations need an advanced degree to set themselves apart from the other candidates. This is the No. 1 reason Iowa State students report for returning to school.

Graduating salaries also affect people’s perceptions of the M.B.A. Though a graduate from a top program can expect an average annual salary greater than the salaries offered to graduates of Iowa State, the differences often are negligible. Most Iowa State graduates choose to stay in the Midwest, where living costs are less than on either coast. And the Iowa State M.B.A. graduates don’t begin their professional careers with the huge debt loads that graduates of elite schools assume.

Salaries for M.B.A. graduates, like most salaries, haven’t moved much nationally in recent years. Even so, the degree can still provide significant salary gains. The Graduate Management Admissions Council reported that students can expect a 64 percent increase in salary from the last full-time job held before entering a full-time program. Iowa State’s part-time students report an average salary increase of 45 percent over the course of their program.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, expected total earnings over a 40-year working life are $400,000 more with a master’s degree than with a bachelor’s degree. The average annual earnings are also nearly 50 percent higher for those with advanced degrees versus bachelor’s degrees. The return on investment is real.

The question is not whether the M.B.A. is still valuable. It most certainly is. The question is, which M.B.A. provides value? If you’re considering a return to graduate school, the answer to that question can be found right in your own back yard.

Amy Hutter is the associate director of M.B.A. student recruitment and marketing for the College of Business at Iowa State University.

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