Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading quite a few articles regarding the worth of college and MBA programs in particular. I can respect and see the perspective of those that say that an MBA degree is overrated. However the ongoing theme of these conversations is return on investment (ROI), using a very quantitative approach to their analysis. However such research is far from comprehensive, and in many cases only refers to a small number of alumni from top programs. It also focuses mostly on tuition & opportunity costs vs. salary — which does not always tell the full story.
I make no qualms about admitting that I have six-figure student loan debt and I make less than $40K annually right now. To me, this is nothing to be ashamed of or make apologies about. Sure, looking back, there are many things that I could have done differently that would have made college cheaper for me. However to me, that is water under the bridge, and in a nutshell, I did whatever I needed to do in order to obtain my college degree.
To illustrate, let’s step away from the academic setting to the international stage. You see, I am a first-generation American on my father’s side, and I know first-hand that the mindset of many third-world country immigrants in regards to coming to the United States is that of just improving their lives. They are not looking to get rich and most do not see themselves as failures if they don’t end up with a home in the suburbs and two or three mid-sized cars in the garage. In fact my Grandmother, who was 49 years old when she first came to this country, lived as a low-income American for the remainder of her life. However her children and Grandchildren were exposed to increased opportunity because of her actions. With them, there also is no guarantee that they will reach middle or high income status; but the chance of this is greater than if she would have remained in Jamaica.
And this is ultimately how I view academia. The discussion about skyrocketing tuition costs is pretty much a moot point with me since my family couldn’t afford to pay for even the least expensive tuition rates (unless those rates were $0). So I always qualified for an EFC of $0 according to my FAFSA, and then make due with the grant/loan package that was offered to me. My path through college was far from linear, but in the end, I was able to graduate. The alternatives would have been #1 – not to go to college at all and #2 – drop out of college out of fear of the debt and have no degree to show for it. For me, neither of these options were acceptable because I wanted to at least get the tools that could prepare me for career success…even if there was a chance that it would not come.
For me, my pursuit of an MBA is along the same lines; although not as compulsory as a bachelor’s degree. The main difference being circumstance…and where you are in your career in terms of justification for the degree. Traditionally, an MBA degree was something that a professional pursued after several years of work in their field; then they would go for the MBA as a stepping ladder into executive positions. Needless to say, I do not fit into the traditional mold. I earned my bachelor’s degree after several years of professional experience. However I obtained that degree right when the economy was particularly bad, and I was wrought with some very serious health issues. So from a professional standpoint, I had actually backtracked – from being an un-degreed working professional, to a B.A. holder who was unemployed. I opted to go straight to B-School, not necessarily because I felt like “pushing off” real life — but because the time was right from a personal (so not professional) perspective. I had the free time, the access to financial aid, and no husband and children to worry about. So in that aspect, my opportunity costs were very low. I also opted to focus on tuition first and foremost, while keeping quality in sight, but not giving it veto power. So my MBA tuition costs for very low; about $15,000.
I don’t doubt for a second that someone could do a quick financial analysis and say that my pursuit of an MBA was a waste of time and money. That I would have been better investing the money into a business and going from there. However no one on earth is able to see into the future. And the present did not present me any opportunities to secure funding for starting a business, but I did have the option to access student loans for my MBA.
So while I enjoy reading all of these articles and opinions about rather an MBA is worth it or not, I’ll stick by my own personal take on the matter: the individual circumstances of both MBA programs and MBA holders are far to diverse to make any type of generalization in support of or against the degree. An MBA degree, just like any other college degree, does not stand alone by itself to make or break a person’s professional success. Rather it just simply contributes, along with a plethora of other factors (i.e. social connections, ambition, personal lives, etc.), to the eventual outcome.