Does an MBA cost less than you think it does?

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When I announced that I was going back to school for my MBA, once of my friends balked that it seemed to be contrary to my values of saving money and building wealth — they left this comment on my Facebook post announcing my acceptance to the program. Yikes! Were they right?

When people hear the letters “MBA” they see about $100,000 in tuition right next to it. For Canadians, a lot of this perception is inflated by the cost of prestigious MBA programs in the USA. Down south, you do have to shell out six-figures to attend a good school. For this reason, many opt to complete their degrees at lower tier schools or online.

In Canada, the most expensive school is nearly six-figures a year, but most are much, much cheaper. The University of Alberta (where I completed my undergraduate degree) and The University of Calgary (where I’m currently finishing up my MBA) cost less than $30,000 per year. You can get even cheaper in Quebec if you’re a resident of that province.

After spending two years getting rid of my student loan debt from undergrad, I wasn’t interested in repeating the process for an MBA, so cost was a huge factor in determining where I wanted to go to school. When I had narrowed down my choices of possible schools to attend, I had narrowed it down to Sauder, Rotman, Queens, and Haskayne. My GPA and GMAT score meant I had my pick.

From my list I chose the least prestigious, which is not typically the route aspiring MBA’s go, but Haskayne had a lot to offer even if the program wasn’t as well recognized. Some of the perks were school specific, others were just geography, but all of them made my graduate degree more affordable than it looked when I got my tuition statement.

Does an MBA cost less than you think it does?

The Government of Alberta Completion Grant

I’ll get $2,000 next term just for graduating, courtesy of the Government of Alberta. Because of my income history and personal savings, I didn’t expect the government to be super eager to dole out any student loan money for school, but I applied anyway just to be eligible for the completion bonus (and promptly stored the student loan money they gave me in a savings account until graduation). If you’re an Alberta post-secondary student, you can get information on applying for the grant here. I’m not sure what other provinces or states offer, but it’s possible there’s similar programs where you live.

High proportion of tuition covered by scholarships 

By the time I graduate from Haskayne, 1/4 of my degree will have been funded by scholarship money. I was nominated directly by the school for awards, and the money showed up in my bank account without any action on my part. These were the biggest sources of funding, but you can find small amounts ($250 to $1,000) on StudentAwards.com. The majority of scholarships are based on academic achievement, so high grades are very important, but chances are if you’re in an MBA program you have a GPA >3.5 so you already clear most hurdles. Lots of people are trying to give money away. Take it.

Income Tax Tuition Credits

One of the major perks of paying your own way through school is you get to reap the tax benefits. Because I paid so much in tuition & fees, I’ll pay less in income tax. This makes my MBA more affordable, even if this perk of going back to school isn’t realized until after I file my income tax returns. The school will issue a T2202A indicating your eligible tuition & fees, but you can claim additional credits for textbooks. A detailed explanation of eligible expenses and how your credits are calculated is available here. But suffice it to say I don’t think I’ll be paying income tax until 2016. Bonus perk: Alberta has a flat provincial income tax rate of 10%, which means even though my income has increased, I’m not paying a premium on it.

A strong career network

Calgary is one of the most robust job markets in North America, and the business schools are along for the ride. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot in my MBA program, but even I know the school’s most powerful asset is the job market of the city it’s located in. Many of Calgary’s most successful are closely tied to Haskayne, and you can leverage that network through the school’s career centre and special events (speaker series, job fairs) they host on campus. Queens and Sauder have a lot to offer in connections as well, but everywhere is hiring in Calgary, which makes a big difference. What good are connections if there are no opportunities? Here there are opportunities AND connections. Your degree is worthless if it doesn’t get you a higher-paying job. Consequently , one of the best insurance you can take out against a worthless degree is looking for work in a city that’s hiring.

My MBA will cost about $50,000 in tuition, fees, and textbooks when it’s all said and done. More than $30,000 of that’s already come back to me in scholarships, tax credits, and a 4-month paid internship, making the degree way more affordable than it looks on paper. The biggest blow to my bank account is still leaving my job to go back to school and going 9 months without a full-time income (a loss of nearly $50,000) and moving to a city with a higher cost of living.

The cost of an MBA is still high, it’s just not as high as you might think — and the payoff is worth it. I had previously calculated my MBA would take ~3 years to start paying off, but since I’ve managed to start my new career while finishing up the program, that number is lower.

Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but if you’re interested it might be more affordable than you think!

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About Author

Student debt killer, super saver, and stock market addict. BSc. in Chemistry from the University of Alberta, MBA in Finance from the University of Calgary. CEO x 2 and MOM x 1. Currently residing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but hooked on travelling.

9 Comments

  1. Yep, that’s less than what I thought it would be, especially when you factor in things like tuition credits, scholarships/bursaries, co-op earnings, etc. I totally thought it would be close to double that! Sounds like the payoff will be worth it 🙂

  2. The biggest cost does seem to be the loss of income while you’re in school, but hopefully your salary will increase after you graduate and you’ll be able to make it up and pay off any remaining debt quick. Prices for MBAs do vary quite a bit school to school.

    • I received a ~40%+ salary increase in my new job vs. my old one — and my first review is scheduled for graduation, so I’m hoping for another bump then. It sucked going without a full-time job for 9 months, then 4 months in an underpaid internship, but now it definitely feels all worth it!

  3. Hmm, interesting! I knew it wasn’t as drastic as the U.S., but I thought it would be more than that all told. Granted, you are a pretty top student I would imagine, to get many of those scholarships through the university. You’re making it more and more tempting, especially with your new job! I might have to follow in your footsteps 🙂

    • Honestly there’s TONS of scholarships… I actually feel guilty for not taking enough initiative to get more. There’s lots for women too, since we’re still underrepresented. A woman specializing in Finance is basically a unicorn.

      I missed out on a lot of scholarships (I’m a flat A-minus student, which is even worse in graduate school where everyone is pulling high grades) but I got enough to really make a dent.

  4. You didn’t factor in cost of living (at least $25,000/year in any urban centre), or the loss of salary and investment income.

  5. Nice! Sounds like you’ve found an ideal way to pay for your MBA. I worked full-time at the university where I got my MA, which meant I received free tuition. It’s totally possible to go to grad school on the cheap–you just have to work hard and be creative. Congrats!