The Business School “Balance Sheet”

Speaking as a MBA with plans to enter the retail industry after graduation, I couldn’t help but spend my Thanksgiving break thinking deeply about shopping. I’m a notorious bargain-hunter and well before business school was constantly fascinated by why and how people buy what they buy, and by the manifold tactics retailers and brands use to turn closed minds into open wallets. If you’ve done your job well as a consumer, be it on Black Friday or any given shopping day, you leave the store with some degree of confidence in what you’ve bought, what it’ll do for you, and the price you paid for it.

I’d argue shopping for business schools is much the same as any shopping experience. You reflect on the things you want from your MBA experience and your post-MBA life and you seek the places you believe will give them to you. You learn as much as you can where you can by perusing websites, visiting campuses, sitting in on classes, looking at job placements, and talking to students and alumni. Eventually you decide on the schools for which you’ll risk the money, time, and energy to go from “prospective candidate” to “admitted student.” Once you’ve gotten in, you undergo another round of research before deciding on the school that will have the privilege of transforming you from “admitted student” to “1st-year MBA” and your bank account from “healthy” to “hemorrhaging” on account of the typical and atypical expenses of student life: Tuition? Paid, of course. Impromptu trip to Turkey? Not taken. MBA trip to the British Virgin Islands? To be determined.

Sometimes, I experience buyer’s remorse about doing my MBA. I think, “When you’re paying for medical school, you’re ultimately paying to become a doctor. When you’re paying for law school, you’re ultimately paying to become a lawyer. When I’m paying for business school, what am I ultimately paying to become? For all the classes in accounting and financial analysis I’ve taken here, how do I put this education on a balance sheet and assign a value to the MBA, especially when many of the people in my prospective field don’t have one? Was this opportunity worth the opportunity cost?”

It’s problematic being a bargain-hunter and going to a business school that is particularly obsessed with numbers and data when there are so many parts of the MBA experience that are near-impossible to quantify: the teachers who irrevocably changed the way you see the world; the internship that broadened your lens of possibility and changed the course of your career as you knew it; the classmates who could be your cofounders tomorrow or ten years from now; the privilege of collaborating and making memories with diverse people from all over the world, all over the world. Can you really put a price on something like this, especially when what people want and expect from their MBA experience can vary so much from person to person?

If anyone can find the optimal price for the MBA, it’s someone at MIT Sloan, but I’m not sure the value of an experience like this can be completely measured — at least not in the same way that I can measure the value the snow boots I just bought to survive my next winter in Boston.

But if my quantitative classes have taught me nothing else in business school, the reality of the situation is this:

  • By now, all but one semester of my MBA costs are now sunk
  • My post-graduation decision tree of opportunities is larger for me now than it was when I came here
  • The intangible assets are hard to measure but account for everything that’s worth it about being in business school
  • While I can’t wear my education the way I can a new pair of snowboots, I have to have faith that this investment in myself has a positive net present value.

Originally published at mitsloan.mit.edu on November 28, 2015.