‘A cherry on top’: The draw of MBA dual degree programs

BY Sam BeckerJuly 14, 2021, 2:00 AM
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Like many MBA students who go on to enter a dual degree program, Esther Magna didn’t plan on earning two degrees when she enrolled at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. But after working in the health care field for a number of years, she soon realized she could supercharge her graduate business education while drawing upon this experience.

“I was looking for a higher education degree that had a level of reputation and gravitas—I knew I wanted that MBA,” Magna says. But “a second degree was desirable for me beyond just the MBA, because I wanted to refine my knowledge around health care. That was my professional focus.”

And with that, Magna was on her way to earning both an MBA and an MPH, a master’s degree in public health. Today, she is the principal MBA admissions consultant at Stacy Blackman Consulting, a company that helps prospective MBA students get into high-ranking graduate programs.

Magna’s experience isn’t an unusual path to an MBA dual degree program, either. While there are some students who enter MBA programs looking to take advantage of joint-degree offerings, most stumble upon the option of earning a second graduate degree as a way of exploring a passion. Doing so can, of course, open additional doors and career options, and all but assure that students can get almost any job they want, too.

After all, how often does an employer get a résumé from someone holding both a law degree and an MBA? 

These programs obviously aren’t for everyone, but MBA dual degree options do open up a whole new world for prospective students, and for the schools that are looking to cater to the next generation of business leaders.

The dirt on dual degrees

It bears asking: What type of job actually requires two graduate degrees? The answer is few, if any, of course. But that doesn’t stop some students from pursuing both an MBA and another graduate degree to complement it. Or at least open some additional doors. 

The most popular MBA dual degree option at the University of Connecticut is the JD/MBA program, which combines business and law degrees, according to Mia Hawlk, director of UConn’s part-time and online MBA programs. This offering is a partnership between the UConn School of Law and the UConn School of Business.

“That’s the program that we get a steady stream of students through,” Hawlk says. And what a JD/MBA student may graduate with is the skill set to not only become a lawyer but also run a law firm; he or she will have business acumen, along with the ability to channel his or her inner Atticus Finch.

UConn has many options available to prospective students, ranging from joint business degree programs—in which students can earn an MBA along with degrees in human resources management or financial risk management, for example—to options that allow students to earn an MBA along with the aforementioned JD, an MS in nursing or engineering, or even an MD (medical degree), to name a few.

At UConn, the first dual degree offering surfaced 15 years ago, Hawlk says, and the options have grown ever since—with more likely on the way. A new program, offering a master’s degree in financial technology (fintech) launched in 2021. The additional offering is one of many that the school offers, and the options have increased over the years because of increased demand from students. And UConn, with a comparatively large population of graduate students, is experiencing a lot of demand, administrators say.

“We’re seeing that folks really want this specialized master’s, complemented with a general MBA,” says Meghan Hanrahan, the executive director of the master’s of science business programs at UConn. Given the resources UConn has, Hanrahan says, the school’s administrators decided to design dual degree options to satisfy the rise in demand. “We built [the programs] because we had the resources. We had the opportunity, and we have the ability to collaborate within our own institution.”

Is a dual degree the right choice?

Dual-degree MBA programs aren’t for everyone. They’re incredibly demanding, and as such relatively few choose to pursue two degrees. At UConn, for example, there are roughly 900 students in the part-time MBA program, and Hawlk says that usually 30 to 50 of them enroll in a dual degree program.

There isn’t necessarily a prototypical student that these programs are designed for or aimed at. And when the costs (in terms of money and time) become apparent, pursuing an MBA while also earning, say, a law degree proves simply too much for most students.

“We have a handful of candidates or clients every year who are interested in dual degrees,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm. But whether or not students actually end up pursuing two degrees usually involves an introspective look at their career goals, and deciding whether a joint degree program is worth it.

“Whether you decide to actually pursue the dual degree will depend on what you want to do in the future, and how that dual degree will help you,” Aggarwal says.

Double your degree, double your fun?

One thing is abundantly clear about MBA dual degree programs: They’re incredibly demanding. For that reason, there are a number of things any prospective student should take into consideration before he or she begins daydreaming about pursuing two graduate programs.

Right off the bat, students should know that an MBA program isn’t cheap. In fact, a two-year program at a top 25 school will generally cost more than $100,000 in tuition and fees—and even more than $150,000, in some cases. Taking on a second graduate degree program can mean double those costs, or close to it, as many schools charge by the credit for graduate courses. Ultimately, the financial burden levied by taking on an additional graduate program will depend on the individual school.

Then, there’s the time commitment to consider. Full-time MBA students likely won’t be able to work full-time as well, meaning they’re giving up potential earnings. Finally, there’s the prospect of getting accepted into the program you want—students looking to earn a JD and MBA, for instance, may need to apply and be admitted to both the law and business schools at their chosen university.

For students, signing up for a dual degree program is no small feat. The financial and opportunity costs are one thing, and many students studying for, say, an MBA along with a law degree may find themselves in school for an extra year or two—with all of the studying and late-night cram sessions that entails. In short, earning two graduate degrees in two separate disciplines can be immensely challenging and costly.

For that reason, passion is a variable that can’t be overlooked. For students considering the dual degree path, a second graduate degree is normally “an extension of what they care about,” Magna says. “It’s a bigger sacrifice, and there’s a bigger opportunity cost to go for that second degree.”

Return on investment with dual degrees

While a dual degree program incurs significant costs, it can pay off after graduation in a big way. For one, holding an MBA and another graduate degree is a very easy way to stand out in the job market. It can also effectively double, well, everything—your network, skills, the industries you could potentially work in, etc.

Still, for most students, it’s important to remember that it probably isn’t necessary to double-dip during your graduate education. In fact, experts say that many of those who do push ahead and enroll in an MBA dual degree program are effectively taking a victory lap, rather than doing it out of career necessity.

“You don’t really need a second degree to do whatever your heart desires,” Magna says. “The people that go for that second degree—it’s more of a passion. A cherry on top.”