Return on investment: Measuring the value of an MBA program

Is an MBA worth it? It’s a fair question, especially as higher education costs continue to balloon. Bloomberg conducted a survey of the Class of 2018 and found that nearly 50% of graduates accumulated over $100,000 of debt to finance their MBA’s. Many of those same students clarified that their higher earning potential post-MBA helped offset the debt that they incurred in their programs. In other words, they measured their Return on Investment (ROI) largely in economic terms.

ROI, however, doesn’t have to be a purely financial ratio, nor is there a single ROI to consider. In addition to salary, you should consider returns like the availability of networking, internship, and career opportunities. You should also think about the cultural and personal benefits: Will an MBA fulfill an unmet intellectual need for you? Will the degree help inspire your self-confidence?

When I researched MBA programs, I measured ROI in a variety of ways, but two of the deciding metrics were purely statistical: What percentage of students had job offers within 90 days of graduation, and what was the average starting salary for these hires? Like the students in the Bloomberg survey, I wanted to ensure that my investment would likely result in a well-paying job.

MBA Candidate Nathaniel Goldberg

My interest in this financial data was largely reflective of personal experience. During the recession, I incurred $25,000 worth of debt to pursue a master’s degree in education (M.Ed.) with the goal of becoming an attractive teaching candidate. But my first job after graduation was dish washing in a restaurant. To be fair, my coworkers called me “professor,” and I enjoyed teaching flatware the finer points of U.S. History, but I wasn’t offered my first teaching position for another two years. When considering my next path for advancement, a program with a high degree of success in employment for graduates became a top priority.

I was careful to contextualize the employment and salary statistics across graduate programs. Rachel Foxhoven, the director of graduate business programs at Portland State University’s School of Business warns, “Starting salaries and signing bonuses might not be indexed geographically.” Graduates who remain in Portland, for example, typically have slightly lower starting salaries than those who relocate to cities with higher costs of living, like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In addition, to publicize career placement rates “schools have to have between 75-85% of the graduating class reporting,” says Foxhoven. Because schools must invest time and money in those surveys, less-resourced programs might not be able to report their numbers despite having strong employment outcomes for their students.

Like other prospective students, I started my research with rankings to discern the caliber of programs. Rankings can give applicants a general idea of a program’s academic quality. Unfortunately, that’s where the usefulness of rankings tends to end. “Schools can drive up rankings by encouraging unqualified applicants to apply,” decreasing their reported acceptance rate, Foxhoven explains. Furthermore, statistical data, such as GPA and GMAT scores, can’t offer insight into the quality of professors or how well a program develops students’ soft skills.

Once I had an initial list of 12-15 programs, I narrowed it to six by considering the returns that were more important to me. Where was the program located? How large were the cohorts? What was the cost of attendance? Did the program’s values align with mine? Were relevant and experiential learning prioritized across the curriculum? Did the university promote a collaborative culture?

Only when I had the answers to these questions did I research graduate employment data. Some programs published this information on their websites, and others provided it upon request. Some programs didn’t have current data to share. With this information in-hand, I finalized my list of programs that would be worth my investment, and I began the application process.

Ultimately, I considered ROI in academic, professional and financial terms. At times, it felt cold and transactional, especially compared to my M.Ed. program search, which I conducted largely on ideological criteria. In the decade since my last degree, though, I have learned that my generation is likely to accumulate less wealth, and there are early indications of another economic recession.

In making decisions about my next opportunity for advancement, I knew I needed to prioritize the personal and financial benefits of a graduate degree. To achieve my goal of working as a consultant, I was looking for a program that envisioned business as a force for good, promoted experiential learning and fostered a collaborative environment. In addition to that strong ethos, Portland State University’s School of Business had the employment outcomes to prove The Portland MBA would have a high return on the time, energy and money I am investing.

If you are curious about PSU’s graduate business programs and certificates, you can learn about them at pdx.edu/sba/graduate-business-programs. If you have questions regarding a specific program, you can contact an advisor or email SBGradInfo@pdx.edu for more information.


MBA Candidate Nathaniel Goldberg

Nathaniel Goldberg is a PSU MBA candidate. Prior to entering the program, he served as a high school humanities teacher for six years. Nathaniel holds a BA in history and English from Emory University, and a master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt. Upon his graduation from The Portland MBA, Nathaniel hopes to become a consultant.

ROI doesn’t have to be a purely financial ratio, nor is there a single ROI to consider. In addition to salary, you should consider returns like the availability of networking, internship, and career opportunities. You should also think about the cultural and personal benefits: Will an MBA fulfill an unmet intellectual need for you? Will the degree help inspire your self-confidence?

Part-time or full-time MBA: Which is right for you?

Students congregating

When considering returning to school for an MBA, prospective students are given two options: a part-time or full-time MBA. Plenty of students don’t know the difference between these two options. The curriculum is the same, but the way the curriculum is delivered varies to accommodate differences in job status, schedule and lifestyle. Here’s a snapshot of the average class profiles between the part-time and full-time cohorts for The Portland MBA:

DemographicsFull timePart time
Average Work Experience (Min. 2 Years)4–6 Years 7–10 Years
Out-of-State Students45–50% 10–15%
International Students35–40%3–5%
Male50–60%45–65%
Female40–50%35–55%

Abby Messenger, our program advisor for The Portland MBA provides advice on choosing the delivery that is right for you: 

“The general guideline is that if you’re planning to make a career change through an MBA, the full-time delivery can afford you the dedicated time and space to do so more seamlessly. Full-time students can pursue coursework and co-curricular opportunities related to their new field of interest, network with professionals in their intended career, and seek a job or internship that can potentially dovetail into full-time employment as they graduate. In comparison, our part-time MBA is designed for full-time working professionals, making it a valuable path for those looking to advance their current career. Part-time students can take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it to their work the very next day, gain leadership skills and credentials to promote them to the executive level, and grow a network of seasoned professionals across different industries.”

Part time

Job status: Generally, students in our part-time delivery are working full time in addition to taking classes. These students tend to have more work experience, ranging from seven to ten years total. Many of these students are looking to accelerate within their field, often with the aspiration of attaining a management role in their current company. Working full time allows for students to pursue their education while still enjoying a salary. Emma Stager, a part-time, second-year MBA student works as an engineer at Mentor Graphics while attending classes. 

“The professors are understanding and do their best to help us get the most out of their classes even if our jobs get in the way. I’ve joined class via Google Hangouts several times while I was travelling for work.”

Schedule: Part-time MBA classes take place in the evenings and are conducive to professionals working a nine-to-five job. These classes are generally offered once a week in a condensed window. A main differentiator for our different deliveries is that our part-time students do not have a certificate or specialization focused classes built into the curriculum timeline. Stager explains that while evening classes can be challenging, “we always have a dinner break, and most classes have enough class activities that helps break up the lectures to keep us engaged. The one downside is that class days are really long days! You wake up, go to work, and head straight to class and aren’t normally home until 9:30 p.m.”

Lifestyle: The part-time option emphasizes the value of networking with peers who are also working full-time — this aspect of the part-time delivery is particularly beneficial to an individual’s future career. Between work and school, these individuals are juggling competing priorities, making it more difficult to be fully immersed in the student experience. 

Full time

Job status: Students in our full-time MBA delivery are typically taking a hiatus from work or working part-time while attending school. These students tend to have fewer years of work experience with an average four to six years of experience prior to starting graduate school. Some of the students in our deliveries hold part-time internships and on-campus jobs while going to school, like Briana Patricio, a part-time Project Manager for the Center for Retail Leadership.

Schedule: Full-time MBA classes take place during business hours, typically Monday through Thursday. Although the core classes are the same between the two deliveries, full-time students often attend a course twice per week, while part-time students attend the same class once per week. This yields an intensified schedule that requires more time devoted to school. Additionally, full-time students enroll in a certificate or concentration, which adds additional classes to their core MBA curriculum. Matthew Gibbs, a full-time, second-year MBA student became interested in finance during his first year of the program, which led him to commit to the finance option as an add-on to his full-time MBA core curriculum.

Lifestyle: If students are seeking a more immersive student experience, they should apply for our full-time option. The excess time outside of school allows students to be more involved in clubs, conferences, social experiences and student-run events. When Gibbs is not studying or in class, he is co-leading PSU’s B-Impact group with three other full-time MBA students, or volunteering at conferences and events often related to B Corps and B Local PDX. Gibbs says, “the full-time delivery has allowed me to pursue these interests and I would not have had time or energy for them otherwise.” 

When deciding which delivery to choose, it’s important to consider job status, delivery structure and lifestyle. As Messenger explains it, “our greatest priority when advising a candidate on the best delivery option is in making sure it aligns with their goals and needs.” If you’d like more guidance on choosing a delivery that is right for you, schedule an appointment with Abby Messenger.

When deciding which delivery to choose, it’s important to consider job status, delivery structure and lifestyle. As Messenger explains it, “our greatest priority when advising a candidate on the best delivery option is in making sure it aligns with their goals and needs.”

Getting your application in before the May 1 deadline: Tips from the admissions manager

The May 1 application deadline is coming up, and I thought this would be the perfect time to interview Laura Bald, the admissions manager for all of Portland State University’s graduate business programs. Here’s everything you need to know to submit your strongest application:

Person typing on a laptop

The May 1 deadline

If you apply by May 1, your application is FREE, so you’ll be saving $67. That’s $67 dollars you can spend on textbooks, coffee and other graduate student essentials. Laura gave us her top four reasons for submitting an application before the deadline:

  1. We can guarantee there will be seats available in the program. After May 1, applicants run the risk of the program being at capacity.
  2. Graduate Business Admissions Scholarships are still available for those who apply before the deadline.
  3. You’ll have plenty of time to prepare for school, get funding, register for classes and all of the necessary to-do’s before classes start.
  4. As soon as you are admitted, you’ll immediately gain access to exclusive events like career development workshops, networking events and events specially designed for you as a newly admitted student.

Application successes

What impresses you most in an application?

It is very evident when an applicant has put a lot of time and effort in their application; all application requirements are submitted correctly, the application essays are thoughtful, the resume is up to date and smart references are chosen. The amount of time and effort an applicant has put into their application really shows us that they are ready to put the time and effort into a graduate program.

Should weaknesses in an application deter an applicant from applying?

No, not necessarily. While each of our application requirements are intentional and designed to assess your readiness for a program, we do look at each candidate holistically. Additionally, we place a lot of emphasis on a growth mindset. In practice, this means that if your application shows a weakness, you can compensate by:

  1. Giving us context around this weakness in your application
  2. Informing us of the steps you have taken to ensure you are prepared for this area of the program

For example, if you happen to have a lower GPA than our average applicant, the application offers you an option to provide a low GPA explanation. This is where you can speak to why your GPA may have been low in undergrad. This section can and should be used to explain the obstacles you faced, what actions you have taken to mitigate these barriers and what steps you will take to ensure your success in the program.

We’ve seen some amazing students who struggled in their undergraduate education or with standardized tests, but excelled in their graduate programs; and we count many of these students among our most impressive and involved alumni. We look at admissions as the art of determining a candidate’s readiness to succeed and be transformed by our programs. We have learned through experience time and again that numbers are not the whole story. We know that if we had not allowed candidates to tell us their story in their application, we may have missed out on some of our best community members.

What are your top tips for submitting a strong application?

The essays are huge — this is where applicants show their true colors. The essays should be thoughtful and real. We should be able to start getting an idea of your personality, passions, goals and motivations. Again — grades, test scores and resumes don’t tell us the whole story. We want to know that you have a growth mindset, are eager to learn and are ready to contribute to the PSU community. I highly recommend using the STAR method to write your essay.

Application pitfalls

What are the things an applicant should NOT do?

  • Make easy errors. Proofread your application before submitting and ask for outside help! I’ve seen people misspell their own name in their application. These are mistakes that are red flags to the admissions committee but that can easily be remedied before submitting an application.
  • Be anything but courteous to the administrative staff. Holistic admissions means that your admissions committee will take every interaction with you into account as they try to determine your readiness for a program. The staff are here to help you through your application process and can offer insight for how to strengthen your application. They understand applying to graduate school can be stressful. Don’t take it out on them! Your actions will absolutely make their way back to the admissions committee- so treat every interaction as a professional one.

In what areas have applicants fallen short in the past?

Not spending enough time on the essays. When you submit only a few sentences per essay, it tells the admissions committee that you may not be serious about graduate school. It does not give them confidence that you’ll put in the needed effort to be successful in your classes.

Follow these tips and voila — a great application! Still have questions? Make an appointment with an advisor to discuss your program of interest in-person, over the phone or via Skype. If you want to hear about The School of Business experience from a grad student, connect with a current student ambassadors to get the inside scoop.

Apply now!

Visit our website to apply. Best of luck!


We look at admissions as the art of determining a candidate’s readiness to succeed and be transformed by our programs. We have learned through experience time and again that numbers are not the whole story. We know that if we had not allowed candidates to tell us their story in their application, we may have missed out on some of our best community members.

Find the right MBA with these three questions

 Student working on a laptop

Deciding on the right graduate business program for you can be an overwhelming process — with over 2,000 MBA programs across the world, how do you choose the right one?

While there are a variety of online guides and printed resources to help answer that question, the following considerations can help provide a starting point for sorting through the host of MBA program offerings.

What are your goals?

There may be a variety of reasons you are now exploring an MBA — your boss is considering you for a promotion but wants you to have an MBA, you have discovered a new passion and want to pursue a career change, or maybe you love learning and see the MBA as an opportunity for personal enhancement. Whichever your reason, every MBA program should have resources and faculty support for specific areas of study — finance, supply chain, entrepreneurship, and marketing to name a few. The alumni network and business community is also a powerful resource that should be aligned with those focus areas. If you’re wanting to launch your own tech start-up or work as a director of a non-profit, explore programs that will align with those goals in both program curriculum and co-curricular opportunities, and external network.  

What if I’m not fully certain of what I want to do? What if I have a variety of career ambitions that don’t fit one specific field?

The MBA is a great opportunity to do important self-reflection by evaluating what you’re passionate about and want to pursue long-term. If your current career objective is a question mark or a page-long list, take the time now to connect with a career advisor or seek out informational interviews with individuals that are in positions or fields that excite you. In doing this research, you can also confirm if now is the right time to pursue an MBA or if there is another graduate business degree that better aligns with your career goals.

Where do you want to complete your program?

Once you’ve determined what goals you want to accomplish through the MBA, a second consideration for your program selection is where you want to study. Some candidates see the MBA as an opportunity to study in a new state or country — explore new industries, meet and engage with new cultures, or pursue their passions in a region that more closely aligns with their values and interests. Other candidates may have personal or professional obligations that root them more permanently to their current region. So, whether you are ready to travel abroad or stay in your current city to complete the MBA, do your research on what each program location may offer you for both your program experience and career pursuits.

Here are some helpful questions to get you started:

  1. Are alumni and business community connections easily accessible?
  2. Do you want to study in an urban or rural setting?
  3. What are the cultural experiences and travel available in the program’s region?
  4. Is the program near companies and organizations for job and internship opportunities?

What do you want your student experience to be like?

This is, in many ways, a catch-all as the student experience encompasses all aspects of a program, but there are a few important ones to pay special attention to:

  • Class Size and Structure: Small, medium, and large class sizes can all provide different benefits to a student environment. From one end of the spectrum, with a class of 25 students, you may experience deeper relationships across that group, and facilitate rich discussions, addressing and learning from the personal and professional backgrounds of your fellow students. Larger class sizes, at the other end of the spectrum, can equate to a larger professional network, and increased diversity. Take note if you are more successful in one of those learning environments over the others.  
  • Classroom Diversity: Business is global and diverse. Your learning experience should reflect that. Most programs will seek to incorporate diversity into their student populations — you can utilize a class profile, student blogs or direct connections with students to hear about the different mix of students who pursue each program, and which mix is one that you think reflects your aims.
  • Student Resources: Applied learning can be one of the best methods for comprehension. Student resources support that aim by putting learning into practice. Want to launch or advance your career in finance? Check if your preferred list of schools have an investment group that allows students to manage a portfolio. Want to grow your current business or launch a new venture? Check if the school has a business accelerator that works with business community members to build a business plan or for mentorship opportunities. This part of the student experience should also address career resources — internships and jobs are significant ways for students to gain necessary experience in a field that they may be pivoting into or building a connection that can lead to job growth post-program.

Selecting an MBA program can be overwhelming, but these essential questions should start narrowing your list of top options.

Deciding on the right graduate business program for you can be an overwhelming process — with over 2,000 MBA programs across the world, how do you choose the right one? Read >

What you need to know to finance your graduate business degree

 Student working at a computer

You’re ready to pursue a graduate business degree, but you need to know how to finance it. Whether you are applying for the upcoming fall term or a future admissions cycle, we want to make sure you have all the important information to set yourself up for success.

There are so many ways to finance your graduate business education, including Portland State University assistantships and scholarships, external scholarships and grants and employer tuition assistance.

Internal Assistance

When you apply, there are in-application essay questions that will get you automatically considered for both general Portland State scholarships and those specific to the Business school. There are also program-specific scholarships available.

In addition to scholarships, there are opportunities for graduate assistantships in The School of Business and in other departments. Many students also find on-campus work through Portland State’s internal job posting site, Handshake.

Employer Tuition Assistance

Many of our students are able to utilize an employer tuition assistance program to pay for a certain number of credits or up to a certain amount per year of the program. If you want to learn more, check in with your employer or a recruiter.

The Scholarship Timeline

February 1: The application deadline to be considered for graduate business and PSU general scholarships.

April – May: School of Business scholarship applicants will be notified about which scholarships they have been awarded.

February – July: PSU general scholarship applicants will be notified about which scholarships they have been awarded.

What Alumni Have to Say

“Being awarded a graduate assistantship and merit scholarships were an important part of my choice to attend Portland State. The financial leeway and peace of mind provided by the stipend and tuition remission have allowed me to focus more fully on school and internship opportunities, and will give more freedom in weighing career options after graduation.”

—Max Bielenberg

“My GA position was very helpful. Not only did the stipend and tuition reduction ease the financial burden of graduate school, but my faculty supervisor offered interesting projects that augmented my learning in courses like accounting and finance.”

—Cal Gosla

To learn more, and for important updates, go to our page dedicated program funding.


Whether you are planning to apply for Fall 2016 or a future admissions cycle, we want to make sure that you have all the important details in front of you to gather your admissions materials, complete the online application, and set yourself up for success to finance the Portland State MBA. Read >

What is the supplemental evaluation for international students?

Our admissions committee works hard each year to admit students who will enrich classroom conversation and increase learning opportunities. Strong work history, managerial experience, non-traditional undergraduate study and distinct personal backgrounds are some indicators that our committee evaluates, but another area of importance is international citizenship.

Between 30 – 40% of our full-time MBA students come from across the globe — including India, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. They share their cultural traditions, business customs and individual experiences within our cohort structure. We know that a diversity of perspectives increases the value of our curriculum and enhances the overall graduate business experience at Portland State.

Because educational systems vary greatly across regions and countries, the application process for our international students has an additional component that must be completed — the supplemental evaluation. During this process, our Office of International Affairs will confirm that your degree is equivalent to a US 4-year bachelor’s degree and that your GPA meets the university’s minimum requirements.

Additionally, our Office of International Affairs confirms the fulfillment of the English Language Proficiency requirements of our university based on the following:

  • TOEFL or IELTS score report
  • Bachelor’s degree transcripts/marksheets in original language and in English
  • Bachelor’s degree certificate
  • Master’s degree transcripts/marksheets in original language and in English (if applicable)
  • Master’s degree certificate (if applicable)

Once received by our office, your file will be moved to complete (as long as all other required materials have been processed), and you will be notified that your application is being forwarded for review by our committee.

While we don’t have separate application deadlines for international students, it’s important to note that the supplemental evaluation process can take additional time. You can expect a final admissions decision or invitation for an interview 5-9 weeks from the date of a complete application.

If you need any assistance while our Office of International Affairs completes the supplemental evaluation, you can always reach out to our office at SBGradInfo@pdx.edu or 503-725-8001.


PSU Recruiting Specialist Abby Messenger discusses some of the indicators the admissions committee looks for in new students. Read >

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