BY Sydney LakeMarch 14, 2022, 2:19 PM
Students and visitors mingle in Harvard Yard, as seen in September 2020. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Of all the reasons to pursue an MBA, earning a salary increase remains top of mind for business school candidates, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2021 Prospective Students Survey. Many business school students—especially those who earn a degree from a top-ranked program—reap the benefits directly after graduation. In fact, some elite business school grads are earning pay packages of more than $300,000 right out of the gate.
“As a general rule of thumb, the compensation at the elite schools tends to be higher than the lower-tier schools,” Sameer Kamat, author of Beyond the MBA Hype and founder of MBA Crystal Ball, tells Fortune. “This trend has been consistent over the years.”
According to mba.com’s 2021 survey, Is Business School Worth It?, the median starting salary offered to MBA graduates in 2021 was $115,000. New graduates from the top three business schools (as ranked by Fortune)—Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business—however, earned a median base salary of at least $150,000 in 2021.
Stanford had the highest 2021 median base salary coming in at more than $158,000, but grads earned more than $225,000, on average, when bonuses are included. During the past decade, Stanford graduates’ base salaries have jumped by about 32%.
Kamat reminds prospective business school candidates that these high salary figures are heavily influenced by industries and companies that recruit from top business schools.
“Finance—in its myriad flavors including investment banking, [private equity], [venture capital], etc—and consulting take up the lion’s share at the elite programs,” he says. “This skews the median salary numbers quite a bit. It sure helps to graduate from a feeder program if the MBA student is keen to enter these sectors.”
VC lures Stanford MBA students with high pay
In 2021, more than one-third of Stanford’s graduating MBA class landed a finance job after graduation, earning them $310,000 pay packages including their base salary and bonuses.
Many of these students who went into finance were hired by venture capital firms, which are notoriously competitive. Only about 1% of all MBA graduates go into venture capital, according to TransparentCareer, and the approximately 1,100 funds in the U.S. employ a little more than 5,000 people in total.
“Students who pursue private equity and venture capital know the importance of solid fundamentals, of having an investment perspective, and of having the ability to develop and sustain relationships,” Jamie Schein, assistant dean and director of Stanford GSB’s Career Management Center, previously told Fortune in an interview. “Their skills and interests, the nature of the MBA program, and the diverse backgrounds of our students make them compelling candidates in these sectors.”
23% of Harvard MBA grads go into consulting
A Harvard MBA netted new graduates average pay packages—including a $150,500 base salary plus bonuses—of $217,000 in 2021, according to the school’s employment data. Consulting was the most-represented industry among 2021 HBS grads, with 23% of the class going into the field.
Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Co., two of the top consulting firms and major recruiters from HBS, pay an average base salary of $165,000 to new MBA grads, according to Management Consulted, a company that offers prep and training for professionals entering the industry. BCG and McKinsey hires also earn large signing and performance bonuses, which can bring their post-MBA salaries to nearly $240,000.
“We find that MBA programs prepare strong problem-solvers who are intellectually curious, innovative, strong team players, and excellent relationship builders,” Adriana Crespo, McKinsey’s manager of recruiting operations, previously told Fortune. “These skills, along with a foundation in business, help MBA graduates to excel as consultants.”
Wharton announced in November that its latest graduating class had earned the school’s highest-ever median base salary at $155,000, according to its 2021 MBA careers report.
“The job market was keen to hiring MBAs and knew that to compete they had to be able to pay more,” Maryellen Reilly, deputy vice dean of Wharton’s MBA program, previously told Fortune. “Everybody’s chasing a pretty finite number of MBAs. It was kind of across the board that salaries went up, but certainly led by banks and consulting firms.”
Indeed, 35.1% of Wharton’s 2021 class went into financial services and 27.2% went into consulting. Wharton doesn’t report bonus figures, but graduates who went into private equity or venture capital earned base salaries between $157,500 and $167,500. Consulting salaries were consistent with other business schools, at a $165,000 base salary.
Return on an MBA investment
While salaries at Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton may appear to be high, Kamat also reminds business school hopefuls to compare their pre-MBA salary to what they could be earning after their degree.
“Students at the super-elite programs were already earning pretty good salaries before heading to school,” he says. “So their median salary after graduation may seem impressive in absolute terms, but in relative terms, not so much.”
For reference, a year at HBS could cost more than $112,000, whereas a year at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which Fortune ranks as having the No. 14 program in the U.S., costs about $35,000 per semester. Including all fees and cost of living, a Darden MBA is approximately $96,000 per year.
“For MBA candidates who aren’t able to get the high-paying jobs, it may get difficult to justify the school’s high fees,” Kamat adds.
See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best business analytics programs, data science programs, and part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.