The rewards of these programs can be huge—MBA grads from Stanford Graduate School of Business, the top-ranked program in the world, reported a 114% increase in their salaries post-graduation last year.
However, even for candidates who aren’t looking at the very top programs, shelling out for that initial cost is a high barrier to entry that excludes a lot of people.
According to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), business school candidates from underrepresented backgrounds were more likely than their better-represented peers to plan to use grants, fellowships, and scholarships to finance their business school journey.
But do scholarships really make MBAs more inclusive?
Scholarships can inject some much-needed diversity into MBA cohorts by allowing these candidates to benefit. And scholarships can help MBA students pursue careers with impact, that aren’t primarily profit-driven.
On the other hand, scholarships could merely be a way for schools to sway the most promising talent towards their program.
“Diversity has always been a value”
According to Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi, the dean and president of ESSEC Business School in France, diversity is the main thing on administrators’ minds when they are awarding scholarships.
From an academic perspective, a good MBA cohort will have at least enough diversity in the room to challenge its students’ assumptions about business, and by offering a range of diversity-based scholarships, schools can curate their cohorts to ensure a productive learning environment.
At ESSEC, scholarships are available for regional diversity, targeting students in particular areas of the world including Africa, Asia, and South America.
From a moral and social perspective, too, diversity is key. ESSEC was the first business school in Europe to open its classrooms to women, and Vincenzo says that roughly 11% of the budget set aside for scholarships goes towards social diversity and equal opportunities.
However, particularly when it comes to lowering the cost threshold for lower-income professionals to seek out a top MBA, many scholarships offered by business schools don’t quite eliminate the barriers to entry.
“We allow people to make an informed financial decision”
Full-ride scholarships are rare, and when they are awarded, the point at which this happens often means that lower-income applicants may still be discouraged.
At Cambridge Judge Business School, 22 scholarships are offered, totalling £450,000 (nearly $588,000), with individual awards of up to £25,000 ($33,600)—almost half the full-time MBA tuition fees.
“We actually now award our scholarships at the point of offer, before the person has committed to the program,” explains Amy Philpot, the head of MBA recruitment and admissions at Cambridge Judge Business School.
“Previously, the process was that they were awarded at a later stage when people had already confirmed their place—we’re now allowing people to make an informed financial decision about whether they can afford the MBA.”
So, could greater scholarship provisions correlate to a more diverse and global pool of applicants? Amy believes that it depends.
“It’s just one way of ensuring that we have the diverse class that is important for us,” she cautions, “because by the time people are applying for scholarships, they’ve already decided to apply for the program and progressed to the interview stage—there’s a lot more to be done earlier in the pipeline than that.”
Combining scholarships with flexible learning
Opening more of the world to the benefits of graduate management education is no easy task. As Amy notes, for a full-time MBA at a school like Judge, the sample of candidates who reach the consideration stage for scholarships is already narrow.
While scholarships may be part of the solution to making business school truly accessible to all, the traditional MBA format is constricting—the solution, instead, could lie in a combination of scholarships and flexible knowledge delivery.
Edinburgh Business School (EBS) at Heriot-Watt University has been delivering online MBA degrees since the 1990s and boasts test centers for their MBA all over the world.
The school’s dean, Heather McGregor, believes that this long-standing global infrastructure gives them a superior level of accessibility as an institution, which in turn gives them more power to bring quality management teaching to emerging economies.
By combining this institutional accessibility with scholarship provision, Heather believes that they can really make a difference to the MBA market, and furthermore, that they have a duty to do so.
“If you are based in Namibia or Tanzania, you can access our MBA much more cheaply than you can in the UK, and that’s deliberate,” she says.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t want you to be a student if you’re based in the UK, of course not, but I also appreciate that for people in emerging economies it is a very expensive investment, and that’s where we need to direct our scholarship money.”
Scholarships are not the be-all and end-all for MBA inclusivity; they must be combined with other initiatives to make a meaningful impact—even if those initiatives mean breaking down the traditional structure of the MBA entirely.