MBA costs soar. Salaries? Not so much.

November 18, 2011, 3:51 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — Getting an MBA degree from a top-tier business school in the U.S. now costs more than a third of a million dollars. That’s the unmistakable conclusion of a new analysis by Poets&Quants that takes into account the opportunity costs of quitting a job to attend graduate school for two years.

The highest total cost comes from Stanford Graduate School of Business, where students typically leave jobs that already pay them more than $88,000 a year. If you tack two years of forgone earnings to the school’s recommended student budget, the total cost of getting an MBA is now a whopping $351,662.

Stanford is hardly alone. There are eight U.S. business schools where the cost of earning an MBA now exceeds $300,000. They include Harvard ($348,800), Wharton ($326,400), Columbia ($322,590), Dartmouth ($316,200), Chicago ($315,608), MIT ($313,264), and Northwestern ($310,378).

Even MBAs from the best public universities barely lighten the load. The total cost of a two-year MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School is now $279,650, while the University of Michigan MBA costs $271,448. The only relative bargain on this list of top 25 schools comes by way of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The total MBA price tag: $195,380, the only school below $200,000.

Plenty of income left behind

The cost of earning an MBA has escalated as many students’ pre-MBA salaries are quite high. Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management says that students who enrolled at the school this fall left jobs that paid them an average of $73,960 a year. At Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the school said its students had earned $66,345 annually before enrolling in its MBA program this year. And at Duke’s Fuqua, the school said its newest MBA candidates had been making $64,087 a year.

In some cases, the “average” figures fall below the median numbers reported by the schools. At the Haas School, for example, the median is $68,000 a year, versus a $66,345 average.

Many of the top business schools recently reported these figures to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, along with their recommended student budgets. A student budget includes tuition, required fees, books and case study materials, as well as room and board. In some cases, schools declined to provide data on the forgone pay of their latest students. Poets&Quants estimated their numbers based on previously disclosed pre-MBA salary data.

Harvard MBAs leave most on the table

Harvard Business School MBA students had earned the most money before heading off to Cambridge, Mass.: an estimated $90,400 a year. Of the top 25 U.S. business schools, 23 have students who earned in excess of $50,000 a year before enrolling in their full-time MBA programs.

It’s relatively rare to see the forgone pay numbers of MBA students, but those numbers also are an important measure of the quality of students at a business school. The larger the salary, the more likely it is that the candidate left a meaningful job in a demanding environment. In any case, applicants to the top MBA programs have to give up a lot when they decide to go to an elite graduate school.

How have these numbers changed over the years? Some 10 years ago, an MBA student at Kellogg left a job that paid $65,000 a year versus today’s average of $73,960. Back then, the two-year recommended budget for the degree came to $105,066, compared to $162,458 today. The total bill for a Kellogg MBA was $235,066 10 years ago. Today, it’s $310,378.

And the reward? Kellogg MBAs graduating in 2001 pulled down median starting salaries of $90,000 and median starting bonuses of $25,000 each. MBAs in Kellogg’s class of 2011 reported median salaries of $110,000 and signing bonuses of $20,000 each. So over the past 10 years, the total cost of getting a Kellogg MBA has risen by 32%, while the starting salary and bonus has increased by 13%.

The comparison looks even less enticing against the 54% rise in the recommended student budget over the past 10 years. The bottom line: What an MBA now spends to get the degree has increased more than four times the post-degree starting salary in the past 10 years. It’s yet another look at the diminishing returns of the degree.

It’s not merely the fact that the costs of an MBA have far outpaced inflation. A stagnant economy has also kept both pre-MBA and post-MBA compensation down.

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