Commentary: The value of my $150,000 MBA is now in question

Sonali Basak interviewing UPS’s then-CEO David Abney in February. (Bloomberg photo by Reilley Dabbs via The Washington Post Syndicated Service)

When I decided a few years ago to spend $150,000 on an MBA while a reporter at Bloomberg, I had an ambitious goal: be the best financial reporter the world has ever seen. This degree, I thought, would help me better understand the workings of Wall Street. It would also give me a leg up in an industry still dominated by white men and plagued by job losses.

Meanwhile, many of my classmates at NYU’s Stern School of Business had fairly straightforward plans. They wanted to be promoted to a director at UBS, get into Bain’s first-year program or move on from a nonprofit. Almost everyone in the graduating class expected to spend May 2020 locking in career opportunities and being catapulted into new, better lives.

Instead, over the past few months, my graduating class watched its options disappear, as the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the economy. New MBAs would be looking for work while corporate America was busy laying people off, which has left 18 million Americans jobless at last count on Thursday.

“I just invested $150,000 in an education that’s supposed to provide an ROI of 300-400%,” my classmate Emal Rustemi said. “How do I capture that? We have hit rock bottom. The world economy has stopped.”

Many of us are immigrants or first-generation Americans, and the MBA was supposed to be a stepping stone into the kind of job that we couldn’t get through family connections. The classes with professors such as Nouriel Roubini, Aswath Damodaran, and Scott Galloway; all-you-can-drink beer hall after class in the NYU basement; trips my classmates took to places like Australia, Tel Aviv or Hong Kong to learn about doing business abroad – that’s what would set our lives on the right track.

And, of course, there was that $150,000. It was a risk, but I thought investing in myself would be a better bet than buying real estate. After all, just look at the stats: The average starting salary for an MBA grad in 2019 was $115,000, compared with $55,000 for people with bachelor’s degrees, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Plus, over the past few years, it felt safe to take a leap. It was easy to get student loans to finance our tuition payments. Unemployment was low, so theoretically there would be fierce competition to hire or promote us.

My classmates moved easily in and out of jobs. One of them quit her job in marketing for Saks Fifth Avenue in the middle of B-school and quickly found work again at toothbrush startup Quip. Another classmate last year told me how he’d turned down a job in New York to run part of a billionaire’s family office, the kind of job that can pay upward of $300,000 in an investment banking-type role, and can instantly make your degree worth it.

We were all so cocky. We could do anything we wanted. Would I take the plunge again now?

To our parents’ generation, an MBA was a signal that the bearer was successful, both financially and in the business world. For some companies, it was a basic requirement of employment. Now, we are worried about whether perceptions are changing. Applications to MBA programs have been falling the past few years. Purdue University said this year they would be shutting down its residential MBA program, once one of the top 30 in the country. How many more will follow suit? Will employers make the MBA optional, like some colleges are doing with the SAT?

To adjust, many of us are redefining what it means to be successful, and even what we want out of life. “The world is giving you a chance to reassess your priorities and do what you want,” my friend Shao Zhou said.

I recognize how lucky I am to still have my job, reporting on Wall Street, at a time when many newsrooms are downsizing and layoffs more generally are soaring. I have a rare opportunity to interview CEOs and people making decisions about what the workforce will look like in the future. I have to believe that my studies have helped me fluidly translate “investor speak” into a story on-air.

Coursework on how to value a company, discount cash flows and bootstrap a yield curve helped me learn how to pick apart the inner workings of finance. But the work on leadership and ethics – required courses that I had to drag myself to make it to – had some of the most lasting impacts.

A friend who moved from a consumer goods company over to TIAA is on the verge of taking a voluntary payout. With a year’s worth of severance, he sees it as an opportunity. He does not know what’s coming next.



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