Does It Matter Where You Get Your MBA?

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 6/21/2022

When it comes to choosing an MBA program, there's an old adage that says that the more prestigious the school, the better your career opportunities and income will be. We decided to test that theory, and our findings reveal that this isn't necessarily true. While some of the 15 schools that rose to the top of our rankings are widely recognized for their Master of Business Administration programs, there are several lesser known yet equally strong contenders. A closer look at all of our winners helps us understand what constitutes a great MBA program.

Key Insights:
  • Five of the 15 top-ranking MBA programs on our list are public universities
  • The best MBA programs offer experiential learning opportunities that allow students to apply what they're learning and develop practical skills
  • Competition to attend one of these programs can be fierce as admissions standards are high

The 15 Best MBA Programs by Salary Score

To determine the highest-paying MBA degrees — whether they are full-time MBA programs or alternative online or accelerated Executive MBA programs — we used student outcomes data from the U.S. Department of Education to see how much recent graduates were earning one year after graduation. We then used this information to determine a unique Salary Score, ranking schools by how much alumni earn compared to others with the same degree. Of the schools we studied this year, the 15 MBA programs shown in the following table all received a Salary Score of 100. A Salary Score of 50 is considered average, so we can say that all 15 schools are exceptional, even though graduates had varying median salaries one year after completing these programs.

A high Salary Score tells us that graduates of these programs earn higher salaries than other graduates of similar programs. But why? What qualities within these particular MBA programs produce graduates who seem to be better prepared for a high-paying career?

MBA Programs with Salary Scores of 100

School Median Salary 1 Year After Graduation Type of School 1st Year Tuition for Full-Time Two-Year Program
University of Pennsylvania $179,063 Private (Ivy League) $84,874
Stanford University $164,734 Private $76,950
Columbia University $162,427 Private (Ivy League) $77,376
Dartmouth University $160,724 Private (Ivy League) $77,520
University of Chicago $159,677 Private $77,841
University of Virginia $157,071 Public $72,200
Yale University $150,882 Private (Ivy League) $79,000
Cornell University $150,786 Private (Ivy League) $76,690
University of California Los Angeles $150,028 Public $70,847
New York University $148,198 Private $78,700
Duke University $143,622 Private $71,750
University of Michigan Ann Arbor $139,794 Public $67,114
Carnegie Mellon University $139,390 Private $72,800
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill $135,964 Public $51,150
University of Washington Seattle $133,070 Public $73,452

Factors That Add Value to MBA Programs

One external factor that may influence salaries, and in turn Salary Scores, is cost of living. If the cost of living in a particular state is high, employers in that state are compelled to compensate employees accordingly, which often leads to higher salaries for locally employed graduates of schools in that state. But cost of living can't be the only factor in play here. Otherwise, schools in states with low cost-of-living rates wouldn't get high scores — like Georgia Institute of Technology's 99 or the University of Indiana's 95 — and vice versa. Clearly, the top programs on our MBA rankings list possess other internal characteristics that inspire employers to offer higher salaries. Examining what these programs have in common provides some insights.

MBA Curriculum

The curriculum is fairly consistent across these MBA programs, which assures employers that graduates have learned the appropriate concepts and skills. First-year students typically take a set of core courses that cover foundational topics in leadership, general management, and global business. The second year is often more focused on electives, which gives students an opportunity to customize their education to align with their career goals.

Many programs also have an overarching point of view that links all of the courses together. Starr Marcello, Deputy Dean for MBA Programs at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, offers an example by describing the program's perspective this way: "Booth’s Chicago Approach is rooted in the fundamental scientific disciplines at the heart of business — economics, accounting, psychology, sociology, and statistics. This approach grounds all Booth students in theoretical frameworks that help them define problems, ask better questions, and develop better solutions. Innovation and problem solving require an understanding of people, their motivations, and the markets in which businesses operate."

Some schools offer formal concentrations that enable students to deep-dive on a particular aspect of business, such as international business or finance. At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, for example, students can select from six career tracks, including business strategy, supply chain management, and entrepreneurship, or from five themed tracks, such as corporate innovation, sustainability, and business data analytics. Schools that don’t offer concentrations still encourage enrollees to take a cross-disciplinary approach to selecting electives by incorporating courses from diverse fields, such as education, computer science, and the arts. By developing specialized skills and knowledge, graduates give themselves a competitive edge in the job market.

Experiential Learning

Employers also know that coursework in these programs utilizes a variety of experiential learning techniques that give students opportunities to practice their managerial and leadership skills. For example, students enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton MBA program or one of several similar programs are assigned to small teams of five or six students. Team members are hand selected by university staff to ensure a diversity of students from different industries and backgrounds. They work together with a mentor for the duration of the program, which allows them to get valuable, informed feedback as they’re developing their personal vision and management styles.

Whether working individually or in teams, students are also required to participate in a wide range of learning activities that take place outside of the traditional classroom. These can include everything from guest lectures and roundtable discussion groups to weekend workshops and longer “intensives” that put students in simulated experiences that demand leadership, decision making, and teamwork. Many of these activities are group efforts in which students must collaborate on a real or fictitious project, and many schools also require internships, which also provide more real-world experience.

In general, hands-on projects are forward thinking, designed to prepare graduates for the challenges that lie ahead. Diana Economy, director of Full-Time MBA Admissions at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, describes the content of the program's Multidisciplinary Actions Projects. These involve a small team of students taking on an in-depth, real-world challenge for a sponsoring company or nonprofit organization: "MAP constantly evolves to represent the present and future needs of business, from dealing with pandemic-related challenges to the onset of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and analytical platforms."

Admissions Criteria

Another reason employers are confident about graduates from these programs is that the admissions criteria are quite competitive, ensuring smart, savvy job candidates. The class profile of many programs show that undergraduate GPAs tend to fall in the 3.4-3.8 range and that the average GMAT score is 715. Many schools tend to favor applicants who’ve accumulated several years of work experience — the average is five — before pursuing an MBA degree. The majority of applicants have earned undergraduate degrees in business, engineering, and economics, although virtually all majors are represented.

Faculty

A school’s faculty can also influence the perceived value of the degree. Most programs employ a combination of professional academicians and researchers along with adjuncts who are working business professionals. For example, the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business boasts a number of Nobel laureates on its faculty, while Columbia Business School’s location in the heart of Manhattan gives it access to many of the nation’s top executives who teach, lecture, and mentor its MBA students. This approach ensures enrollees are exposed to both solid academic fundamentals and current concepts, trends, and issues.

Research

In some cases, employers may favor graduates of specific MBA programs because they’ve been involved in the school’s research programs conducted by professors and PhD candidates. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, conducts research into such business topics as entrepreneurship, innovation, family businesses, retailing, and HR management.

MBA Alumni Networks

One final factor that appears to have a significant impact on an MBA salary is the strength of the school’s alumni association. MBA programs often have a dedicated alumni network, such as the University of California Los Angeles' 41,000-member network. MBA alumni often support each other through networking events and mentoring, and they have been instrumental in helping fellow graduates land high-paying jobs.

The Office of Advancement at the Booth School of Business says that the school sponsors a number of events designed to introduce new graduates to some of the 55,000 program alumni. These include annual events like Booth 20/20, the Alumni Breakfast Series, and First Year Reunion, as well as ongoing opportunities such as Booth Family Dinners, alumni club meetings, and affinity or special interest group meetings.

What Companies Are Hiring Grads From the Top MBA Programs?

Data from LinkedIn shows that graduates from these top-ranked programs are going to work for some of the largest multinational companies as well as small, boutique employers in a vast array of industries from banking to healthcare to manufacturing. Many of these employers are household names — Amazon, Microsoft, Google, American Express, Twitter, and General Mills to name a few. Others are well-respected notables in their industries, including Ernst & Young, Goldman Sachs, Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey & Company, and Meredith Corporation. Some graduates have become entrepreneurs, going into business for themselves as business consultants.

How to Choose An MBA Program

As impressive as these 15 programs are, some MBA hopefuls simply may not be able to enroll in one of these graduate degree programs due to financial or other constraints. However, for those who believe an MBA should be the next step on their career path, studying these programs shines a light on what to look for in any MBA degree program:

  • A cross-disciplinary curriculum that allows for some level of customization through electives
  • Mentorship and learning teams that enable students to develop their managerial skills by practicing on each other
  • Hands-on experiential learning activities that teach collaboration and leadership
  • An impressive caliber of classmates due to high admissions criteria
  • A mix of academicians and practitioners on the faculty
  • A well-organized, supportive alumni network

Perhaps the most important outcome graduates should expect to gain from the MBA experience is a leader's mindset that values principles, innovation, and commitment to community. This mindset lies at the core of the best MBA programs in the country.

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