3 ways to get a free degree from a top business school

BY Isabel Peña AlfaroJuly 08, 2022, 12:52 PM
Mira Costa High School graduates toss their caps into the air next to the Manhattan Beach Pier, after taking part in an annual tradition of walking along The Strand from Hemosa Beach, to Manhattan Beach, CA, following their graduation ceremony, as seen in June 2022. (Jay L. Clendenin—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

If you want to get an MBA degree from one of the best business schools as ranked by Fortune—but can’t get past the $125,000 to $200,000 cost—you might be surprised to learn that there are ways to secure partial scholarships or even a full ride. Full or partial funding—whether from a school, employer or a foundation—can be available for you.

Getting an MBA for free will require that your MBA candidacy profile stands out to schools for a scholarship or that you secure funding from your current or future employer or that you apply for a fellowship through a non-profit. You can also mix these options to cover the whole cost. 

The majority of full-time MBA programs, or 85%, report that they offer merit scholarships for applicants to reduce the burden of tuition, according to figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council.

“I would strongly suggest that candidates who are looking to get a free MBA spend time bolstering their candidacies prior to applying to business school. Merit-based scholarships are given on the strength of an applicant’s profile, and therefore to stand out, candidates should take time to assess their profiles,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO at Ivy Groupe, a boutique MBA admissions consulting firm. “Spending time on their authentic narrative and ‘connecting the dots’ in their story are also important with respect to putting their best foot forward to secure a merit-based scholarship.”

If you’re convinced that you want to attend a top-ranked business school, read on to find ways to secure funding.

1. Seek a scholarship from a school

Top MBA schools don’t need to discount their programs—many applicants are willing to pay the full tuition and other costs. And yet, even the top-ranked business schools want various viewpoints and areas of expertise represented in classroom discussions, and they support that goal with scholarships. 

“MBA programs will not only admit, but also potentially lure, with scholarship dollars,” says Esther Magna, principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting.The MBA candidates that get these offers must be ’movers and shakers’ in a domain that the school is excited about, she adds.

Even applicants who have outstanding professional and life experience may not receive a scholarship because they don’t stand out from a very competitive pool of candidates. However, when a candidate has a specialization in a trending and niche topic, a school may offer funding to attract that student and win them over a competing school. 

“A year or two ago, we saw anyone who had vaccine-related experience was in really high demand as a student. People like these might receive generous scholarships directly from the school,” says David White, founding partner and admissions consultant at Menlo Coaching. Candidates with an expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) and entrepreneurship have been in high demand as well, he adds.

If you believe that there’s a shortage of people with an expertise like yours and it happens to be an in-demand area or industry, then you might be a perfect fit for a scholarship.

Another way to seek a scholarship from your school is to ask for it once you’ve been admitted. Remember, once a school has accepted you, they’ve chosen you, so don’t be afraid to negotiate a financial package. A simple, yet convincing email may gain you tens of thousands of dollars. To receive funding, White says that you can come to an agreement for financial support with your business school after you’ve been admitted. To increase your chances, he suggests broadening your application pool and applying to several schools. 

2. Get your employer to pay for your tuition

There are two main ways to get your employer to pay for your MBA degree: Work through your current employer so they pay the full or partial tuition or Negotiate a signing bonus from the employer that hires you once you’ve graduated from business school. The signing bonus could cover your business school fees and expenses.

Many Fortune 500 companies will help their employees pay for their MBA degree in some capacity, including a full sponsorship, tuition assistance, reimbursement, or an annual contribution directly to the university. 

Connect with your employer’s human resources department to learn about your options. With this type of tuition assistance, the employer will likely ask you to return for a set number of years once you’ve completed your degree.

If your current employer doesn’t offer a tuition reimbursement benefit, you may be able to receive funding from a future employer, particularly if you’re planning to work in finance or consulting. Many firms in these industries offer enticing starting packages for MBA grads from top business schools. 

Work closely with the career development office at your MBA school to identify these types of employers. Prepare yourself to negotiate part of your tuition into your signing bonus and don’t discount yourself—many grads from top ranked business programs earn salary packages of more than $300,000 upon graduation.

3. Receive funding through a non-profit program

Another way to find funding for an MBA program is through non-profit organizations that proactively support underrepresented minorities. In some cases, these organizations also financially support students who have advocated for underrepresented minorities, even if the candidate isn’t a minority. 

Aggarwal recommends being extra resourceful and doing research to see if there are fellowships available for you. “For instance, the Forte Foundation offers MBA fellowships to advance women in business,” she says, and she adds that other examples of organizations include The Consortium and the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. You will have to go through an additional selection process to be chosen by the selective non-profit programs, however, the effort will pay off because you may receive close to $100,000 or a full ride.

Consider hiring an MBA consultant to help you through the process

If you’ve run out of avenues for scholarship funding on your own, you may want to consider seeking guidance from an admissions consultant to make your profile stand out for scholarships. Their counsel may be especially helpful if you don’t have a strong support network of people who can provide input in your application.

Admissions consultants dive into your professional and personal experience and help you create an application strategy—including school selection, resume and essay review. Applicants may need guidance in crafting a compelling story about who they are and their expertise, Aggarwal says, and she adds that candidates may neglect to tell a piece of their story because they believe it may hinder them, when it might be the missing link to make them stand out. 

While these consultants charge anywhere between $500 an hour to more than $15,000 for long-term engagements, these types of experts can identify your weak spots and help you strengthen your candidacy profile to increase your chances both to be admitted to the program of your choice and receive financial assistance. 

While the MBA admissions process can be overwhelming, with time and careful planning you may be able to find partial or full funding from a variety of sources.

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in computer science programs, psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.