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What Is an MBA?

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 9/13/2022

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is a graduate degree in business intended to teach leadership skills. These degrees are more popular than ever, with applicants drawn to the prospect of salary increases once they've earned the diploma. And with an uptick in the number of online MBAs, there have never been so many convenient options for graduate business students. But what is an MBA, and why might you consider one?

Read on if you're curious about MBA degrees: their purpose, the different types, the typical curriculum, and what they can cost.

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What Is a Master of Business Administration (MBA)?

Faculty design MBAs to prepare students for leadership roles in whatever career they choose. Although "business" is in the name, the lessons learned during MBA studies can also apply to government or nonprofit roles. This is because an MBA curriculum usually emphasizes soft skills such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking alongside the material on profit margins and corporate strategy.

Many business schools offer various formats for these programs, including on campus, online, and a hybrid of the two. In addition to choice of format, you select from general programs and those offering concentrations to help you specialize in a specific area of business or leadership.

A full-time MBA program can take either one year or two years to complete. These degree programs leave little free time for working a job, but they're still relatively popular: Most enrollees attend part-time MBA programs while working. This includes the smaller cadre of executive MBA students, who tend to be older and have more professional experience than others.

A recent survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) reveals that 40% of respondents intend to study full time.

What Is an MBA Good For?

An MBA may be helpful if you want to become a manager of people, projects, or both. It has the potential to help you rise in your current organization or embark on a new career path entirely. This is largely because MBAs are known quantities with high brand recognition. Many hiring managers understand the lessons learned during these programs and appreciate the value that graduates can potentially add to their organizations.

[An MBA] has the potential to help you rise in your current organization or embark on a new career path entirely.

Because of their perceived value, MBAs have also acquired a reputation for boosting starting salaries. Research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers supports this claim, and certainly many program alumni believe that their degree led to increased earnings. But at least some research suggests that the MBA pay hike might not outweigh what graduates would have earned if they'd stayed in the workforce instead of going back to school full time.

Who Is an MBA For?

The wide pool of MBA candidates is one of the benefits of these programs. The one factor uniting all these candidates is their desire to lead teams of employees in their chosen industry.

Many enrollees earned undergraduate business administration degrees, but it's not a requirement — plenty of others enroll without previous business education. MBA students come from a wide range of educational and career backgrounds, with many seeking a career change. Lacking a bachelor's degree in business isn't necessarily a liability as long as you explain your story in a compelling way.

Types of MBA Programs

With hundreds of schools offering MBAs, it's little wonder that we can find plenty of variety among them. Below, we've listed a few types of MBA degrees you can choose. You may want to consider other factors such as experiential learning and research opportunities and a school's faculty before deciding where to get your MBA.

Accelerated MBAs can potentially allow you to complete full-time studies more quickly, but some of these programs require you to hold an undergraduate degree in business.

Executive MBAs are hybrid programs marketed to experienced business professionals seeking a career boost.

MBAs with concentrations help you tailor your studies with a specialized focus area, such as healthcare management, entrepreneurship, or marketing.

Online MBAs provide maximum flexibility by combining mostly asynchronous coursework with the opportunity for in-person internships to give real-world experience.

MBA Courses and Curriculum

Many business schools pursue programmatic accreditation for their MBA offerings, whether through the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, or the International Accreditation Council for Business Education. Given these accreditors' quality standards, many MBAs have broadly similar curricula to ensure that they pass their regular accreditation reviews.

MBA courses typically cover fundamental business concepts such as leadership, risk management, organizational finance, global macroeconomics, and ethical leadership. If you choose a concentration, you'll put most of your electives toward that focus area.

MBA Application Requirements

Graduate school programs represent advanced knowledge of their subject matter, so MBA admissions committees tend to be more selective than for undergraduates. Here are a few items you'll need to submit with your online application:

  • Official bachelor's degree transcripts, typically showing a minimum GPA in the 2.75-3.2 range
  • A resume detailing education and work experience (the majority of applicants have three or more years in the workforce)
  • Graduate admissions test scores, usually either the GRE or GMAT
  • Letters of recommendation from professors
  • A personal essay, often detailing your career goals
  • A nonrefundable application fee

What Is the Cost of an MBA?

The cost of MBA programs varies widely. The total tuition cost for many MBA programs falls into the $60,000-$100,000 range. Some programs cost less, but executive MBA programs can cost nearly $200,000. While the program format may influence the cost somewhat — online programs, for example, are sometimes cheaper than on-campus programs — the school's reputation is perhaps the most significant contributor to tuition fees. The more prestigious, nationally recognized universities usually charge higher rates.

While the program format may influence the cost somewhat — online programs, for example, are sometimes cheaper than on-campus programs — the school's reputation is perhaps the most significant contributor to tuition fees.

MBA students need to account for expenses in addition to tuition. All enrollees have to pay for mandatory fees and books. Full-time, on-campus students also need to account for room and board or commuting expenses, along with lost wages if not working. Your employer may be able to provide financial assistance in paying for your MBA. All candidates should apply for every possible source of financial aid, especially fellowships and grants that lower the degree's cost and help reduce student loan debt.

What Can You Do With an MBA?

Careers for MBA graduates can take many forms. An MBA may prepare you for leadership roles in various fields, depending on your choice of a general or specialized program. A master's degree isn't necessarily required to obtain a management position in business, government, or the nonprofit world, but it could set you apart from other candidates and impress recruiters and hiring managers.

Management occupations form the highest paid category that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks. Several of these careers are among the highest paying jobs in the nation, including chief executives and computer and information systems managers.

FAQs About MBAs?

What Does MBA Mean?

MBA stands for "Master of Business Administration," meaning a master's degree teaching advanced knowledge of business practices and skills. Much of the curriculum focuses on the needs of for-profit businesses, but graduates throughout the decades have applied their MBA lessons to leadership roles in all sectors.

What Does an MBA Really Do?

Completing an MBA signifies to hiring managers that you have advanced knowledge that leaders need, such as how to write budgets, manage operations, and formulate strategy. Most research indicates that MBA alumni command higher salaries after earning the degree, so a pay hike is another likely benefit. For analysis of an MBA's probable return on investment, see Is an Online MBA Worth It?

Is an MBA Higher Than a Degree?

An MBA is a type of master's degree, so it's more advanced than a bachelor's degree. However, it takes less time than a doctorate in business or management, which is geared more toward research than business practice.

Is an MBA Better Than a Master's?

You can choose from several types of business degrees at the master's level, but one isn't necessarily better than another — it depends on your career goals. For example, a master's in business management tends to focus on a particular field, such as engineering management or project management. They're also more common and respected in Europe, so this degree might suit you if you want to work in that continent.

Which MBA Has the Highest Salary?

Based on our research, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School program is the best MBA for landing a high-paying job. But Penn's MBA is very selective and expensive, so not everyone will have access to this program. More broadly, you might choose an MBA with a concentration in a field with highly compensated managers, such as information technology, architecture, or engineering. Your chances of landing a high-paying role in one of these fields are better if you studied them as an undergraduate, because an MBA concentration might not provide all the subject matter knowledge you need.

Bottom Line

An MBA is a popular graduate degree in business for students who want to be leaders in their careers. There are many options to choose from, including MBAs with different learning formats and specializations.

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