Think the secret to a high-paying job is an MBA? More like the secret to years of crippling debt. Here’s how to reap the benefits of an MBA without the financial burden.

It’s no secret that having an MBA tacked after your name has quite a few professional and monetary benefits. So why haven’t you run off and enrolled in the first MBA program you can find?

Because earning such a respected degree also means taking on a massive amount of debt. And it’s not getting any better. Tuition fees continue to increase dramatically, and many have started to question the true value of MBA degrees. There’s also the question of ethics when it comes to the marketing tactics many business schools use to attract potential students.

Could MBA programs be a bubble just waiting to burst?

As with any financial investment, you shouldn’t wait until everybody agrees there’s a bubble to save yourself from it. By then, it will be too late.

Instead, follow these tips to hack together the same benefits of an MBA degree without mortgaging your future and taking on six figures of debt:

1. Beat out the MBA competition with skills they don’t have

If an employer has the choice between two equally experienced candidates — someone with an advanced business degree, and someone without one — you’d think the MBA would usually win.

But in reality, the degree has little to do with it. The candidate who has the most valuable and desired skills will be offered the job.

Research the most rare and desired skills in your industry. Maybe it’s the knowledge of a new technology, specific professional experience or fluency in a particular language. Train yourself in those skills or find a way to add relevant experience.

You don’t need an MBA to be the candidate an employer can’t resist hiring. (Click here to Tweet this thought.) Don’t mortgage your future to buy a tie-breaking joker when you can have the winning card for much less.

2. Amp up your earning potential

Yes, it’s true that those with an MBA earn more than those who don’t have one. But the MBA is not the reason. Most of those graduates had to prove a high level of professional experience to receive admission to business school in the first place.

Instead, focus on increasing your salary in the long run. Employers look for specific work experience, and they’re willing to give big bucks to those who have it. Develop your experience in a growing industry you love and train yourself in the most in-demand skills in that market.

Your salary will increase along the way; it’s supply and demand.

3. Out-network the MBA-ers

An MBA is not a nobility title. You go to business school to meet amazing people… who are just the same as you. You may never again cross paths with your classmates in the real world if your professional projects have nothing in common.

Develop an amazing network yourself. Buy Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz’s book Never Eat Alone, and start connecting with key people who can help you accomplish your professional goals.

This is the 21st century. You don’t need a pedigree. Perfecting your social skills and leveraging your social networks will help you build a world-class network.

4. Change careers the smart, debt-free way

The possibility of a career change is a false business school promise. You don’t need an MBA to successfully change careers.

If you want to do something new professionally, take it upon yourself to gain experience in your target industry. Network with people who already have jobs in your target field. It may take a year or two for an opportunity to present itself, so patience is key. And when you switch careers, you may have to accept a lower salary, but keep in mind you’ll have saved a fortune in tuition by dodging the MBA bullet.

5. Flaunt your admission to business school — without actually going

Perhaps you’ve always dreamt of that Ivy League stamp on your resume. But keep in mind all that comes with it. You’ll have to work your tail off for up to 90 hours a week at not-so-glamorous jobs for at least 10 years to pay that investment back.

Maybe that doesn’t sway you. Your “Master of the Universe” fantasies might be strong enough to convince you it’s worth it.

So why not go for it? Get the admission letter from at least one top business school on your list. And then stop right there. Think for a minute.

You already have a brand. Maybe “admitted at the MBA program of the WeAreTheSmartestGuys Business School” isn’t as flashy as “MBA graduate.” It’s like being an Academy Award nominee instead of an Academy Award winner. But the difference between the two is mortgaging your future and accepting the risk of getting stuck with a monumental student loan.

If you opt to just keep your admission letter as a “brand,” use it carefully. Think how you’ll explain to potential employers why you didn’t follow through. For example: “I preferred to use that time and money to develop strategic skills to benefit my potential employers’ competitive advantage, such as…”

Don’t bury yourself in debt just because everyone else is doing it. That’s how bubbles are formed. Take some time to think whether that pricey title is really worth the investment of your time and money.

Mariana Zanetti earned her MBA degree from one of Europe’s top business schools and has more than 12 years of international marketing experience in three countries. She is the author of The MBA Bubble.


  1. Shona

    I haven’t read the author’s book; however I am a bit surprised that there was no mention of how to create the opportunity to learn outside of B-School what you learn there. In my experience, I did study and learn business subjects and disciplines that I did not get the chance to cover as an undergraduate. I chose to pursue an MBA MAINLY for the education. I don’t think there is a way to get around that notion.

    • Mariana Zanetti

      Hi Shona, Thank you for your comment. Josh Kaufman has already proposed a cost-effective and alternative way to learn the main business concepts an MBA can provide in his Personal MBA book and program. I have personally read some of the books of his list and I am convinced that I would not have missed any fundamental business concept by following his method.
      Just for information, I have no commercial interest with Josh Kaufman’s solution.

  2. ebog

    Things really hard on this stage, where the right can make the difference is simple and anyone can do it. Really what an MBA is more important than that. No one knows what you are capable of, more than other people who have a degree or not.

  3. Andi

    Showing employers your acceptance letter without actually going sounds like a terrible idea. Why would they care what you DIDN’T do?

    • Mariana Zanetti

      If you get admitted into an elite school, it means that you have what it takes. Show your potential employers that you can add a lot of value with unique and scarce skills, and you will be remarkable. Of course, this would not apply in an industry when an MBA is highly expected, as management consulting.

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  6. James

    My $.02 as someone who has worked for several Fortune 500 companies in a field that routinely lists “MBA Preferred” for all job openings (market research), I have personally bumped my head against this conundrum on more than one occasion. I nearly pulled the trigger in the late ’90s working for a very quickly growing internet start-up that lavished employees with stock options that were exploding in value. My immediate supervisor (who had a very nice MBA of his own from William&Mary) didn’t mince words. He said, “Don’t be an idiot. You have an opportunity to make twice what you will pay to get an MBA in the same amount of time by staying with the company, plus you’ll get real-world experience.” Fortunately, I took his advice which paid off more handsomely than he had forecasted. But I was still concerned about long-term career insurance and have felt the sting of not having a graduate degree, especially when surrounded by people who like to wear their graduate degrees on their sleeves as a badge of honor. Which brings me to the psychological benefit of having an MBA: you invested time and money and regardless of whether the practical knowledge correlates to job functions, you are now committed to making it work. I still feel in the end if you are considering spending $150k on an MBA, remaining in the job force and accumulating more real-world experience, or taking a similar loan to start a company, I just don’t see where the MBA can compete. If money is no object, sure, why not? If social status precludes doing something crazy like starting a business, then understood. But on the face of it, if you are smart enough to get into a decent MBA program, you are smart enough to be far more successful in the business world without the credential.

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