The True Cost of an MBA

Humans constantly analyze situations and make choices. From minute daily decisions to life altering, nerve racking, “did I chose the right path” moments, we chose. Yet, even with all these habitual choices, even when we research and deliberate, we often miss the cost and benefit that will be paid and gained from a decision. We miss the big picture — the true cost.

When I made the decision to go back for my MBA, I made the decision with clear intentions and a strong purpose of why, yet the process wasn’t easy or clear. While choosing to go back for my MBA took less than two minutes, choosing where to get my MBA took weeks. I pored over research and data and compared schools in between a full-time job and studying for the GMAT. The daunting process made me feel like my 17-year-old self again, choosing my undergraduate university and the path of my post-college life. Except this time, I was older, wiser and far busier. As I dug into the research, I compared schools on the expected fault lines — MBA programs offered, the program length, and current university and MBA program rankings. I was targeting an international-focused MBA which helped winnow the list. Then I threw a wrench in my decision by choosing to attend full time. All of sudden, all International MBA programs were on the table and I was swimming in data and uncertainty again.

For clarity, I turned to the numbers and looked at the real cost of earning my MBA. There were myriad factors to consider, starting with tuition. The tuition costs ranged from around $40K to over $100K and were either annual or total program costs depending on the school. The numbers were staggering, and I was moderately panicked as I quickly calculated how much going back for my MBA would put me into debt. I was full-on panicked until I remembered the opportunity for scholarships. Thankfully, I’d have access to a plethora of scholarship opportunities as a graduate student. Even better, graduate assistantship opportunities were also available, which provided a stipend and the opportunity to work closely with faculty. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I’d be able to offset some of the costs of an MBA program through scholarships, graduate assistantships and a paid internship.

I then considered the non-academic costs such as housing, commuting and weekly living expenses. Again, the range of anticipated costs was broad due to varying locations. Additionally, commuting costs varied greatly dependent not only on where I lived, but which city the school was located within or near as well the typical weather throughout the year. Some schools would require trains and subways every day, plus walking while others made commuting to campus a necessity or yet another school where I could walk, bike or drive depending on my preference. While my information gathering helped, what I thought would provide clarity further muddied the waters. Where tuition was higher, the cost of living was lower while the scholarships offered varied by school and accepted cohort demographics.

What I’d learned helped me shorten my list to the top three universities whose programs appealed the most to me: the University of South Carolina, a Northeastern program and a West Coast program. And then I hit another wall, how was I supposed to narrow my top three down to a top choice?  

At this point I came to a significant realization. I’d been so focused on the present, on picking the right school for this immediate moment, I’d lost sight of the true cost of an MBA — the value it would provide for my future career opportunities, for my future career path, and for my future self. That missing variable — my future goals — turned out to be the key to unlocking which university was the best fit for me.

When I changed my perspective to focus on my future, the university I wanted to be part of was clear — the University of South Carolina and their #1 nationally ranked International MBA program. This is the reputation I want to be linked with, that I want on my resume and which I want to talk about during the interview process.

Earning my MBA would require many sacrifices but with the University of South Carolina, I would be able to attend the most accessible and affordable #1 International MBA program in the country. The affordability was immediately clear. All MBA students earn some level of scholarship and have the opportunity to be offered a graduate assistantship. Additionally, in-state tuition is accessible to out-of-state students once a certain scholarship amount has been awarded. Furthermore, the affordability extends beyond the classroom to the city of Columbia itself. A vibrant state capital with a variety of living opportunities to meet any budget, especially when compared to living opportunities in the Northeast or West Coast. Columbia is also a highly accessible city whether you have a car, a bike or your walking shoes and offers a range of public transportation.

Suddenly the idea of going back for a full-time MBA was not as financially daunting as I initially thought while the sacrifice of having to move and rebuild my life in a new region of the country while passing on potential job opportunities was less intimidating. Even better, my future potential would be enhanced by the national ranking and rigor of the International MBA program and the talented cohort of people (current students, alumni and faculty) who comprise it. I believe choosing the University of South Carolina is an investment that will pay greater dividends than I could ever calculate!

Caroline Wright, International MBA candidate
University of South Carolina
Darla Moore School of Business