Master's or MBA

Master’s vs. MBA: 3 Key Factors

Making the choice to go to graduate school is an opportunity to improve your career, knowledge and professional development.  Deciding you want to go is an exciting first step, and an affirmation of your commitment to the journey ahead.  The next step is to decide what kind of graduate program you are interested in pursuing.  Do you have an outcome in mind?  For many professionals, their default choice is a Master of Business Administration, or an MBA.  This decision is usually based on having observed successful individuals, business leaders and mentors with an MBA and feeling that the credential brings them more value than any other kind of graduate school.  The information here is designed to help those interested in exploring the pro’s and con’s of an MBA versus other kinds of Master’s degrees that are out there for learners.

The Master of Business Administration degree has long been the mainstay of the executive world.  Universally regarded as a pathway to leadership in almost any industry, the popularity of MBA programs among domestic students in the U.S. reached its height at the beginning of the millennium.  Since then, the international student market has bolstered MBA enrollments for some institutions, while others have had to make changes to accommodate shifts in student interest and by leveraging technology.  Unfortunately, some universities have had to re-evaluate the delivery and structure of their MBA programs to keep them relevant to modern learners and busy working professionals.

When considering any kind of graduate program, it is important to recognize that there are other options beyond the MBA that may be a better fit for your unique needs.  Professional master’s programs (sometimes Master of Science, Master of Arts, or other names) have become increasingly popular, especially with the rise of online learning.  The attraction for working professionals and for those that have a very specific field or disciplinary specialty is only enhanced by employer-sponsored tuition programs.  In fact, Professional Science Master’s programs have spurred an entire new kind of degree program for professionals in certain fields where research (thesis or dissertation required) degrees have traditionally been the only option.  Why settle for an MBA in “healthcare” when you can get a professional master’s degree specifically in the business of biotechnology?  Professional specialization, MBA program cost, and other industry-specific factors have driven growth in enrollment and the number of professional master’s programs across institutions over the last 20 years.

How can a learner make an informed choice about which is better, an MBA or a professional master’s degree?  By analyzing MBA and master’s programs using three key factors, learners can make the best choice about which of these similar-but-different pathways is the right choice for them. The factors are explored in detail below, and are the costs, the focus and the network.

The Costs

According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, graduate degrees tuition costs, on average, $19,314 per year, meaning the average cost of tuition for a two-year Master of Science or Master of Arts degree would be $38,628.  MBA costs are not as straightforward, but depending on the experience they can be expensive, particularly at the highest-ranked institutions.  For example, the Johnson Cornell Tech MBA, a highly-selective, tech-focused immersive MBA program administered by the prestigious S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management, has a published tuition price of over $114K for the one year program.

How do most academic institutions arrive at their unusual pricing?  It is often based on the cost for each unit that comprises the degree program, commonly referred to as units or student credit hours.  Student credit hours are assigned to classes for many reasons, and most Master’s degrees can be counted in terms of total credit hours.  Consider what that means for your costs as you consider your MBA (usually 60 credit hours) or Master of Science (usually 30 credit hours) that may actually take the same amount of chronological time to complete (both can be completed in 1-2 years).

The Focus

Many business schools have names, and they would like you to use them.  That is to say, they have been endowed by a donor or organization that has elected to attach their proper name to the name of the school, hence an endowment by Samuel Curtis Johnson to Cornell resulted in the above-named B-school.  In some cases, among the most elite schools, these names can be regularly used instead of the affiliated university name.  “Wharton,” for example, is the common way to refer to the elite B-school of the University of Pennsylvania.  For these kinds of schools, the name is more than what they want to be called — it is a culture, a discipline and a calling card for your future.  The name becomes the brand by which the faculty tout the quality of their MBA graduates.  Saying you received your business degree from “Ross” (the famous Michigan B-school) or “Darden” (University of Virginia) carries weight in industry meetings, social circles and even in some personal service situations.  In fact, some folks want an MBA from one of these schools just to have the name on their resume.  With that name, however, often comes a special focus for each business school, rooted in the pedagogy and expertise of the faculty, infrastructure investments over time and by industry partnerships.  Understanding the particular focus of your B-school options, whether that’s finance, marketing, human capital or consulting, is important in making the choice between business schools.  Most MBA programs want you to have some kind of specialization, and they are eager to recommend their top disciplines.  This point also illustrates why Master’s degrees can be just as valuable when thinking about specialization for professionals.

There are professionally-geared Master’s degree programs that are not MBA programs that are also offered by elite schools and colleges.  They are taught by world-class faculty that have cultivated national and global reputations for their programs and in some cases have better reputations than any B-school could in their field.  For example, in the field of journalism, many top communications schools offer Master’s degree programs that carry great weight in their industry (with names like “Newhouse,” “Annenberg,” and “Cronkite.”)  These programs are highly selective and focused on their discipline, and can often open doors that are unique to a particular industry.  Another example is to look for similar Master’s business programs in sub-disciplines at a university, such as engineering.  While many students yearn to go to NYU for a degree from the prestigious Stern School of Business, just across the river in Brooklyn at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering they can earn a highly regarded (and less expensive) Management of Technology Master’s degree.  Both the Tandon program and the Stern MBA are business graduate degrees from NYU, but they have drastically different focuses, costs and expectations.

A warning; while they are amazing graduate programs taught by experts, these types of Master’s programs can be limiting.  They often emphasize key professional points that may only be relevant to a certain segment of an industry or set of skills (after all, they are specializing).  This is a positive for those that want a deep specialization, but it is also an important limiting factor for these kinds of Master’s degrees when compared to a more well-rounded MBA.

The Network

The connections you make in graduate school can be among the most important aspects of deciding whether to go for an MBA or another kind of Master’s degree.  Most colleges and universities highlight their alumni network and industry connections in outreach to prospective students, faculty, donors and their communities.  The accessibility of this network is often based on a few features, including digital presence.  Unfortunately, this can be one of the drawbacks of excellent online Master’s degree programs that cannot offer learners enough networking and collaborative opportunities to match the in-person experience.  Some MBA programs enroll their learners by “cohort,” meaning that you will pass through your program with the same group of learners — a group you will likely form significant relationships with that will last well into your time in industry.  Some professional Master’s degree programs also offer cohorts, significant networking opportunities and vast alumni networks, too.  Spend time considering how you will be connecting with the right kinds of professionals, graduates, and industry organizations through your graduate school experience.

The network and focus of your selected program, whether an MBA or another kind of Master’s degree, will also make a distinctive addition to your personal brand.  What do you want employers and other professionals to think about your graduate degree?  What type of characteristics do you want to project with your advanced education?  Take special care when aligning your choice of MBA or Master’s degree with your personal brand to ensure you are making the best choice for your future.

Ultimately, the choice of whether to pursue a Master of Science, Master of Arts, or a Master of Business Administration (or something entirely different) is a personal one.  Life experiences will inform your choice more than any strategies that can be offered to you, as well as advice from key stakeholders and business leaders in your life.  Before “defaulting” to an MBA, consider the array of options available to professionals in your field (or in your future field).  Regardless of your final choice, also remember that applying to graduate school is a process — always have a few options in mind and be careful of setting your heart on one particular graduate program.

Copyright © 2021 Ray Lutzky. All rights reserved.