It sounds like a good assignment for a master of business administration class: Which MBA programs offer the best return on investment?

The question isn’t just academic. Obtaining an MBA generally takes two years, attending full-time. Unless you receive financial aid (and many students do), tuition and fees can easily run you $40,000 to $50,000 a year at most schools, far more at the top private ones. Room and board can add another $15,000 to $20,000 or more per year. All told, you could be looking at a cost of $150,000 and up. And don’t forget the money you would have earned if you’d spent those two years working instead of studying.

Fortunately, an MBA is often worth the investment, at least in the opinion of men and women who have one. When asked, “Knowing what you know now, would you still have pursued a graduate management education?” a mere 7% of current MBA holders said they definitely or probably wouldn’t have gone for the degree, according to the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2018 Alumni Perspectives Survey. (Also see Should You Get an MBA? and When Is an MBA Worth It?)

But some MBA programs pay off better and faster than others. That’s where return on investment comes in.

Calculating and Comparing ROI

The long-term ROI of MBA programs is difficult to measure, as is comparing one college to the next. While anecdotal evidence suggests that an MBA from a prestigious school like Harvard, Stanford or Wharton will take someone further in their career than one from Podunk U., many other factors come into play, including the particular industry and, most important, the individual.

Shorter-term ROI is another matter, however. One common way to look at it is to compare tuition costs to average starting salaries, often referred to as the “value-added ratio.” If two schools’ graduates earn roughly the same amount, the school with the lower tuition is presumably the better deal.

More recently, another measure has come into vogue: comparing average starting salaries and the amount of debt students had to take on to earn their degrees. The advantage of this approach is that it takes into account costs other than tuition; the disadvantage is that it represents only students who borrowed to pay for their programs rather than the entire universe of MBA grads.

One Study’s Top 10

U.S. News & World Report, for example, published a list earlier this year of what it called the “10 MBAs With the Highest Return for Grads Earning $100,000-Plus.” The salary figures include any signing bonuses and reflect what students were earning within three months of graduation.

The school with the highest return, for example, was the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with an average salary and bonus of $114,635 and average debt of $20,226, for a salary-to-debt ratio of 5.7 to 1. In second place was the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida, with an average salary and bonus of $116,281, average debt of $32,510, and a salary-to-debt ratio of 3.6 to 1.

The other eight, in order of highest to lowest salary-to-debt ratio, were the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, the Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington, the Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics at the University of Delaware, the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, the BYU Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University, the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, Rutgers Business School and the University of Connecticut School of Business.

Short-term ROI isn’t everything, of course, especially if things like prestige, connections or a powerful alumni network are important to you. (See also How the Harvard MBA Compares to the Stanford MBA.) In the USNWR overall rankings of business schools for 2019, not one of its ROI winners made the top 20. The University of Washington’s Foster School came pretty close, though, at 22.

Do It Yourself

If you want to do your own ROI research, you can generally obtain tuition and living-cost information on the b-schools’ websites (search by the school name + “cost of attendance”). Those figures won’t take financial aid into account, so if you think you might be eligible for either need-based or merit-based assistance, a quick call to the schools’ financial aid offices could be worth your time. Remember that some types of financial aid are better than others – grants and fellowships, which don’t have to be repaid, will reduce your bill, while loans just stretch your payments over a longer period (and incur interest as well).

If you don’t already have a good idea of starting salaries for MBAs in your chosen field, check one of the major job sites for current openings and what they pay.

Once you have all that information, you can compute your own salary-to-debt ratio for each school. Even if you aren’t planning to borrow, that can be a good benchmark for comparison.

You can also take it a step further and create a more personalized ROI for yourself. Start by subtracting your current (pre-MBA) salary from your likely MBA salary, then divide the total cost of your degree by the result. Doing that will give you an idea of how many months or years your MBA will take to pay for itself, which might be useful to know if you’re still deciding whether or not to go for one.

The Bottom Line

A master of business administration (MBA) degree is a serious investment that can easily run you $150,000 or more, not including lost wages. Unless a generous employer is footing the bill, one of the many factors you’ll want to consider in choosing a school is the return on investment (ROI) for your degree.

If you’ll be taking on debt to finance your education, calculating the ROI for each school on your list can help you determine how long it will take you to pay off that debt, given your likely starting salary after getting the degree.

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