The long-term investment of a MBA

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In today's uncertain economy both recent graduates and working professionals are taking a hard look at the value of an MBA. They are questioning whether the future benefits associated with an advanced business degree outweigh the significant investment of both time and money they are required to make today.

Determining the value of an MBA begins with a little introspection.

"Before you can choose the right program you have to understand what your career goals are and know exactly what you want to get out of an advanced business degree," said Andrew Sama, associate director of admissions for the MBA Program at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

"And, for most people, that knowledge can only come after they have been in the work force managing people or budgets and problem solving," he added.

Ninety-five percent of the students who earn either a one-year or two-year traditional MBA at the school's South Bend campus bring a minimum of two years' work experience to this full-time program.

Governors State University, on the other hand, has structured a flexible schedule for working adults trying to balance job, family and school responsibilities. All MBA level classes are held in the late afternoon and evening and almost all classes are also available online.

"Our MBA program is designed for students with undergraduate and working business experience as well as people like engineers and scientists who want to advance into management but have no business experience," said Ellen Foster Curtis, dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Governors State. "These individuals may work for companies that put a high value on an MBA degree and find that certain career paths are not open to them without this advanced degree."

The intangible value of an MBA degree is demonstrating to your employer or prospective employer that you're serious about advancing in your career and you've acquired the skills and tools to do just that. But, according to Foster Curtis, it also can be measured more concretely.

"The cost of a degree is certainly significant, especially for students who are already burdened with undergraduate debt. But the payback in increased earnings over a long career can more than offset the expense," she said.

The tuition for an MBA degree varies wildly. It can range from approximately $12,000 at a public university such as Governors State to $44,000 at the University of Notre Dame, peaking at as much as $107,000 at the prestigious Wharton School of Business.

However, financial aid is available in many forms including scholarships, grants and research fellowships. More than 65 percent of students enrolled in Notre Dame's MBA program receive merit-based fellowships.

"And some companies, although not as many as in the past, will provide tuition reimbursement for employees being groomed for advancement," Foster Curtis said.

What are some of the things you should consider when scouting an MBA program?

Investigate the faculty of all the programs you're considering to make sure they're all doctorally qualified, Foster Curtis advised.

"You can get a lot of information on the school's website, including where the instructors received their doctorates, their business experience, what they have published and any research projects they have participated in that resulted in new knowledge in their field," she said.

Also, try to get a handle on your fellow students. Much of the learning environment will be interactive with each student bringing his or her own business experiences to projects and discussions. And students who can share how they handled or avoided a potential crisis in their workplace can provide a real-time and not theoretical learning experience for their peers.

A program with flexibility in terms of both online and on-site classes, a schedule that includes evening and/or weekend classes, small class size and convenient locations are other important considerations.

You can also evaluate a school on the basis of specialization. You may be drawn to a school that offers a specialty in addition to the general business curriculum. These schools work closely with the related industry such as nonprofit, management of health care, real estate and entrepreneurship to name just a few. They might also have an incubator to attract venture capital or offer work-study programs that give students hands-on experience plus an invaluable network of future contacts.

Finally, before you invest a great deal of time and money in an MBA program, check to see if the school you are considering is fully accredited. You want to be certain that the degree is recognized and respected by employers. There are several international accrediting institutions but the oldest and most prestigious is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International founded in 1916.

The AACSB International is a global nonprofit membership organization of educational institutions, businesses and other entities devoted to the advancement of management education.

The AACSB International is the recognized accreditation agency worldwide and the "gold standard" by which MBA programs are rated, according to Sama.

Jean Guarino is a local freelance writer.