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How to Get Your Boss to Support Your MBA

— July 23, 2019

The MBA is a great degree for those desiring to move up in the business world. Some employers may even pick up part of the cost of this expensive degree.

The MBA is one of the most expensive degrees on the market. Universities can sustain this price in part because the MBA is a professional degree that dramatically increases earning potential. But, another big part of the puzzle is employer sponsorship: Many MBA students aren’t paying full tuition out of pocket. An MBA, like first-class air travel or advanced design software, is in-part targeted at corporate customers spending from the company purse. That’s a recipe for higher prices, and the MBA degree is no exception. 

How can you avoid paying this premium? The simplest way is to get on the right side of the sponsorship equation by asking your boss to support your MBA. If the request is accepted, it can radically expand your financial options and even increase your chance of admission. Sponsorship also invests your employer in your personal success, often leading to better post-MBA roles. 

Sounds great! But getting $100,000+ from management for personal self-improvement is a daunting proposition, so here are some tips on how to get your boss to support your MBA.

Know Your Company’s Tuition Reimbursement/Sponsorship Policy

The first step is to do your research. What is your employer’s policy on education sponsorships? What kind of degrees do they support (MBA, EMBA, online MBA), and how much funding do they provide (tuition, partial tuition, a fixed stipend)? At a huge company with an organized HR department, these policies will be written down on internal websites or in the employee handbook. Some organizations may even have structured relationships with MBA admissions consultants and GMAT prep courses to guide your application choices and give you the best possible chance of success.

Man working at laptop; image by Glenn Carstens-Peters, via
Man working at laptop; image by Glenn Carstens-Peters, via

At smaller companies, you will likely need to do some detective work. Just because there isn’t a written policy doesn’t mean your employer never sponsors MBAs—in our experience even some big-name employers make these decisions on an ad hoc basis through recommendations from supervisors. In a less formal setting, discovering your company’s history of employee sponsorships is essential. How many people have they sponsored in the last five years? In what ways did those employee’s profiles resemble or contrast with yours? The obvious place to start is with the MBAs at the company… did any of them work at the company before their MBA, then return? Those folks are the most likely to have received a sponsorship.

Prepare Your Pitch

Once you have a sense of how often your company offers sponsorships, and who receives them, you can formulate your pitch. Why are you a suitable candidate for a sponsorship? This is too much money to count on your good personal relationship with the decision makers or your record of strong performance—you need to prove that there’s something in it for the company. 

Many applicants’ first instinct is to focus on what an MBA teaches: “I’ll come back with X, Y and Z business skills!” This is a mistake. While an MBA gives students a powerful business toolkit, the skills you learn in an MBA program can usually also be learned in the workplace. If you go in saying “I need to strengthen my quant analysis skills,” you could easily walk out with just an offer to pair you with a strong quantitative mentor at the company. 

Instead, focus on the business practices and fresh ideas you’ll get by leaving your employer’s bubble. By working on business projects with classmates from other companies (even competitors), you will learn new processes and strategies that you can bring home with you after graduation. The company isn’t paying to improve your personal career prospects, they’re essentially buying business intelligence from an innovation hotbed like HBS, Stanford, or Wharton.

Be Smart and Flexible

Once you’re in the room with your boss (or, at larger companies, a sponsorship panel), recognize that the conversation is essentially a salary negotiation. You are asking for money, either on top of your existing salary (EMBA) or as an advance on future work (a traditional MBA). No matter how much your boss supports your ambitions, they still have a responsibility to “buy” your MBA at the lowest possible price. That’s their job as managers!

Very few companies are willing to foot full tuition, so you’ll likely end up settling on some fraction of the total. From your research in step #1, you should have a good sense of what that fraction has historically been. Be prepared to bend a little if you’re asking for more than the company usually gives, and recognize that your boss might use common negotiating tactics in this conversation. For example, employers often prefer to exchange higher post-graduation salary for a lower sponsorship rate.

These tips should get you started in any sponsorship conversation. Usually this is a conversation that should be had before you submit your applications—the fact that you are sponsored will make you more attractive to business school admissions committees. However, there are some employers where seeking a graduate degree might be detrimental to promotion prospects if revealed too early. If you suspect this may be the case, be careful not to tip your hand when conducting your research, and consider not broaching the subject until after you have impressive admissions offers already in hand.

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