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BY Cameron-Brooks

The JMO & Full-Time MBA Programs – Are They Worth It?

We interview thousands of officers annually and the topic of graduate school comes up quite often.  Case in point, on my recent recruiting trip, I met with several JMOs who were considering full-time MBA school.  While one might assume that as a recruiter and principal of a JMO recruiting firm, I would denounce full-time MBA schools because they are “competition”, that is simply not the case.  In fact, for nearly half of the officers I met with, I recommended they pursue their MBA full time based on their goals and circumstances.   I wanted to write this blog to further elaborate on those discussions and share my thoughts and experiences as former JMO, MBA graduate, and a business professional of over 18 years.  I hope you will find this blog both helpful and informative for JMOs considering Full-Time MBA programs

So, the big question is full-time graduate school worth the investment?  The simple but honest answer is it depends.  It depends on how marketable is the officer toward business with their current objective assets (undergrad degree, military experience, etc.) and what are their career goals? In some cases, attending full-time MBA programs post-military career might make a lot of sense if they have a degree that does not point to business and they desire to enter a sector in business directly from the military where the recruiting is done predominantly on an MBA campus. Two industries where this is most definitely the case are investment banking and strategic consulting (which is different than business process and risk consulting, which we represent with clients such as EY, Protiviti, ZS Associates, PWC), etc.  Below are some of the topics I discussed recently with those JMOs:

  • Using graduate school as a way to figure out what you want to do.   According to the current data out there, the average cost of a full-time MBA program is just over $60,000 whereas a top-10 MBA program will cost over $100,000 in the U.S (Harvard tips the scales at $74,000+ annually).   This can be an expensive way to figure out what someone wants to do with their career and does not even account for the opportunity cost of lost time and income.  Through our program, we offer our JMO candidates the ability to conduct a true broad career search.  At a Cameron-Brooks Career Conference our candidates average nearly 13 interviews apiece and those interviews are across multiple industries, career fields, companies, locations, etc. so they can determine the right path long term.   The added benefit of this is the process takes statistically only 18 working days from attending a Conference to accepting an offer, not 2 years!
  • I can go to graduate school for free.   One JMO I recently spoke with said he was excited because he figured out he could go to a really good MBA program for virtually nothing based on yellow ribbon programs and/or other Veteran’s assistance programs.  That is great and they are worthy programs but my point to him was it will not be “free”.  Now, the tuition may be close to zero but there will always be an opportunity cost with any decision you make.  As I referenced in the bullet above, there is the opportunity cost of lost income and time.   Let’s say for example someone was making $85,000 annually in base salary.  If we assume a 10-15% bonus, over two years, that is ~$190,000 lost in income not to mention the time spent to earn the MBA.  The business world doesn’t stop simply because one is in graduate school.  Those two years in school could be otherwise spent building ones career in business, gaining valuable experience, that much closer if not already earning a promotion, raise, etc.
  • What other options are out there? 15 to 20 years ago, the full-time programs were probably the best and most viable options to get an MBA. With the advancements in technology in the past decade and with more employees concerned about losing income to go to full-time school as a result of the economic crisis back in 2007, there has been a surge in part-time professional, executive, and distance-learning programs. Some schools, like Wake Forest for example, have nixed their full-time program. At Southern Methodist University where I earned my MBA, their flagship program is now their Executive MBA program because of the increased desire for those to pursue an MBA while still continuing their professional careers.   Many companies, at least the ones we work with, offer some form of tuition assistance as part of their overall employee benefits package to help offset school costs and in several cases with our alumni, I’ve seen those companies full fund an MBA program.  So, while the full-time programs still offer a quality education, there are many different and also high quality, ways to pursue an MBA today that may be more conducive to one’s lifestyle, economic situation, and career goals.
  • The MBA will separate me from the pack.  If you are attending a top-5 school, I would submit that even today that is a fairly accurate statement; although if you are able to get into one of these schools, you most likely have already separated yourself from your peers.  Interestingly enough, according to Statisticbrain.com, in 2013 there were over 800,000 MBA applicants and over 1 million MBA students enrolled that year. The average graduation rate has now grown to over 200,000 MBA graduates per year since 2010.  Expounding on my bullet point above, there has been a significant increase in the number of business schools and MBA program options so the market is simply more saturated with MBAs.  Interestingly enough, however, according to another article I read recently, just over 1/3 of CEOs in America have MBAs where this would suggest that corporations put as much, if not more emphasis, on a person’s track record to lead teams, build organizations, facilitate change, etc. than merely their academic background.  So, the MBA is certainly a worthwhile degree and marketable, but just because you earn one does not mean you’ve “made it.”   The MBA should be viewed as another tool (albeit an important one) in the toolkit to aid you throughout your business career.
  • The MBA will provide a great Return on Investment.  According to a Yahoo Finance article, Harvard Business School returns 14.8% on a graduate’s investment after one year with Wharton being only 6.3%. Some in-state schools may be higher because the cost of tuition is lower.   I also came across another article discussing the value of full-time MBA programs.  More and more schools have created part-time, executive and online MBA programs to increase their ROI, allowing students to keep their full-time jobs.  Most people account for the debt they will incur when doing an MBA program but often overlook the opportunity cost of lost wages and time that I addressed above.  The ROI also really depends on a person’s goals.  I spoke with one officer considering an MBA and was really interested in operations and sales roles; roles for which he could interview for without an MBA.  For him to spend the time and money for an MBA program that would be unnecessary for industries, roles, etc. that he was interested in (and already qualified for), the return on investment would simply not be there.  Imagine if the Army had made me pay for my own way to attend Airborne School?  I served as an Armor officer where dropping tanks from planes is not really a viable option!  Airborne school was a great experience but for the money, the education would have brought little value relative to the career field I served in.   For someone with say a history or philosophy degree perhaps that is dead set on going into banking or strategy consulting, the ROI would be much better because the MBA would be almost required for those industries.
  • The MBA will teach me what I need to know to be successful in business. Again, yes and no. There is no doubt an MBA program will provide a very solid foundation for business concepts to include finance, marketing, operations management, organizational behavior, etc. But, for those officers who go straight to business school from the military there are fewer contexts from which to draw upon because of how differently the military functions versus Corporate America. Think back to your first military schooling you attended as a new 2LT or Ensign. You learned a lot but it wasn’t until you got to your unit, ship, etc. where you really learned how to be an effective leader and officer. With actual business experience first and pursuing a concurrent part-time MBA program, it provides that important context and experience from which to draw upon so what you are learning in the classroom will make more sense and be reinforced.
  • I get the benefit of a valuable network.  I hear this quite often as an argument for MBA school and I would agree there is value in this but what network are we talking about?  I would argue there are two networks – the alumni network from your school and the network you will establish from your classmates.  With a top 5 MBA school, there is no doubt their national alumni network can be powerful but even with a top 5 program, the cohort network still  consists of unemployed 26-28 year olds!  That is just the reality of attending full-time school.  With part-time and EMBA type programs, your cohort may consist of some executives, directors, GMs, business owners, etc.  I can say from my own personal experience this was the case and I learned a great deal about business and even life from my classmates as much as my professors.
  • How will I market myself? Schools like Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, etc. are all excellent MBA programs but they are not very good at marketing a JMO’s background to business. When choosing to attend a full-time MBA program, what you are ultimately choosing to do is, upon graduation, re-branding yourself as a new MBA graduate and no longer a JMO. MBA schools understand how to market their graduates that way because that is their area of expertise. Schools like a Harvard or Wharton can do so nationally where schools like SMU, Duke, Georgia Tech, etc. will probably do a better job regionally because they don’t have the national presence like a top-5 MBA program. But, they do not understand the JMO background so you are in essence foregoing that experience in most cases to lead with your MBA. So, when looking at options, it is important to decide how you will market yourself and what you choose to lead with – your JMO experience or your two-year MBA?

These are some of the points I felt had merit and consideration when deciding about full-time graduate school as a JMO.  Again, my goal in writing this blog post is not to convince anyone reading it that there is not merit in attending a full-time graduate school program but rather to provide some insight and information to consider to help you in your decision process and determine for yourself whether full-time graduate school or coming straight to Corporate America may be the right path.

If you would like to learn more about your specific trade-offs of earning an MBA to transition to business versus getting one in an Executive or part-time program before you transition or while working in corporate America, please email me at rdavis@cameron-brooks.com.

Rob Davis