Admissions consultant Andrea Sparrey uses two numbers to startle prospective business school applicants.
She tells them the average price of a home in the United States in 2010 was $273,000. And then she tells them the average price of an MBA from a "Top 10" school that same year was about $307,000, including forgone income.
"You wouldn't buy a house, most of the time, without looking at it first," Sparrey said during a February panel discussion on "The MBA Decision," part of the Tribune's TribU series. "And not without looking at a series of houses. Asking people for their perspective and input. Visiting with a mortgage broker or two. Getting an inspection done. An MBA is the same kind of decision."
Sparrey said her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business was the most expensive purchase of her life at the time. And she advises anyone considering the degree to think about what they expect to gain from it and then weigh dozens of variables, such as price, brand recognition and alumni network.
In short, treat business school like a business decision.
"What was really interesting this year was that it was the first time I had a client who said, 'You know, Andrea, this is a $1 million decision for me,'" said Sparrey, who founded Sparrey Consulting in 2008. "And I stopped because I was a little upset that a 24-year-old makes enough money for it to be a $1 million decision, but indeed it was."
James Janega, an executive MBA student at Booth and the Trib Nation manager at the Tribune, illustrated the difficulty of the decision. He opened his backpack during the Tribune event and began plunking down seven thick books on a table. The reading ranged from GMAT prep manuals to books written by professors whose classes he wanted to take.
Janega said the research was necessary. It gave him "peace of mind," given the burden the degree would place on his wife, two young children and the family's finances.
Elizabeth "Betsy" Ziegler, associate dean at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said research also will help applicants avoid making decisions based on stereotypes.
"Our finance department is actually quite remarkable," Ziegler said. "Twenty-four percent of our full-time students go into a finance function or a financial institution vs. 13 to 15 percent (who) go into consumer packaged goods or marketing. Which you'd never guess given the outside view of what a Kellogg student stands for."
Still, Janega worried an MBA from Kellogg, which helped pioneer teaching and research on marketing and teamwork, would play only to his strengths.
"You're not doing this for three letters that come after your name," Janega said. "You're doing this for a set of skills that you plan on using. ... For me, I'm a professional writer. … And I'm going to a school (Booth) that's known for finance and economics. And I wanted that because I was looking for something that would play to my weak side."
Northern Illinois University College of Business associate dean Paul Prabhaker simplified the decision: "If you can make the sacrifices and get into the top-branded schools, Kellogg or Booth, there is no question why you wouldn't want to go there."
Beyond the elite schools, Prabhaker advised narrowing the search to AACSB-accredited schools. He compared accreditation from The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business to "the Good Housekeeping Seal" of approval.
Seven universities based in the Chicago area have AACSB-accredited business schools: Northwestern (Kellogg); U. of C. (Booth); DePaul University (Kellstadt); Loyola University Chicago (Quinlan); Illinois Institute of Technology (Stuart); University of Illinois at Chicago (Liautaud); and Northern Illinois University.
Terri Friel, dean of the Walter E. Heller College of Business at Roosevelt University, said another option is a master's degree in a more specialized but business-related field. Roosevelt offers them in accounting, accounting forensics, human resource management and real estate.
"Those are very deep into industry," she said, adding they're shorter and more affordable than an MBA. "The MBA is a broad degree. It covers all of the disciplines. But for those folks who know that real estate is exactly what they want to do, and want to be very fluid in those skills, we can … provide the business connections in those industries."
If an elite MBA program is out of reach — for academic or financial reasons — Prabhaker recommended relying on "feeling" over rankings.
"Too many prospects that I've seen put the burden of the choice on the university," Prabhaker said. "They say, 'I'll simply look at the rankings and figure it out.' If you do that, unfortunately, you'll probably end up with a fit that may not be the best fit. Accept the responsibility of making the choice. And figure out what you want in terms of convenience, price, brand. You're not going to get it all." Asked how getting an MBA changed their thinking, Sparrey and Prabhaker said it gave them confidence. In Prabhaker's case, it was the confidence to become an entrepreneur. Sparrey said her analytical skills gave her more confidence in her career choices and leadership abilities.
"I left thinking I was able to quantify most anything," she said. "I think I even subjected my husband to scoring our marriage for several months."
Echoing that point, Janega said: "It was ironic that a year into an MBA I finally had the tools to be able to figure out whether or not I needed an MBA. I'm happy to say the answer is, 'Yes.'"
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Circle May 7
Melissa Harris will lead a discussion in a TribU event, "MBA in the Digital Age," on Chicago's startup scene and whether an MBA can help you achieve your goals. tribumba.eventbrite.com