The ROI on your MBA
We survey the country's top business schools to tell you how good an investment they really are.
By Rob Howe

(Business 2.0) – You've got dreams--big honking expensive dreams. You want to be a player in a powerhouse corporation or launch a business of your own. Either way, you've decided you'll need an MBA to prepare yourself, as well as open some very exclusive doors. But first you're going to have to fork over two years of your life, plus pay tuition that can soar to $80,000.

But hold on a second. Before you commit, you have to ask yourself this: Is it really worth it?

That's what we wondered too. We figured that, more than any other prospective grad students, MBA candidates want a handsome return on investment. They want to know what kinds of salaries await them, and which schools offer the fastest route to the top. So we went looking for answers. With the help of the Princeton Review, we zeroed in on the 25 schools whose students scored highest on the GMATs. We talked to students, alums, and career-advisory officers, and asked the questions you would: How effectively does the school attract recruiters? How well does the school bring students into direct contact with potential employers? How quickly do graduates find work?

Of course, the answers to these questions can't be summed up by plugging them into a tidy algorithm. And there's also one key question that we can't answer: What do you want to get out of the experience? With that, all we can do is tell you exactly what you're getting yourself into.

University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business Berkeley, CA

Average GMAT 701 Tuition $21,512 (resident) $33,758 (nonresident) Enrollment 1,123

Berkeley's rebellious spirit extends to Haas. "There's a strong sense of entrepreneurialism--of being different and breaking the rules," says Johan Smet, class of '97, now finance director at GPS gearmaker Trimble. Silicon Valley executives and VCs, regular visitors to the campus, help nurture that spirit--as does the Berkeley Entrepreneurship Lab, which provides guidance on launching new businesses.

Cal's tuition is a bargain. Twenty-four percent of grads find tech-related work, second only to financial services. Cisco, Genentech, Wells Fargo, and Yahoo are top recruiters, and the median starting salary is $87,500.

University of California at Davis Graduate School of Management Davis, CA

Average GMAT 678 Tuition $21,462 (resident) $33,707 (nonresident) Enrollment 678

The Little Engine That Could of business programs, Davis is small and relatively new. Compensating for a limited alumni network and sometimes reluctant recruiters, the career office earns accolades for trying harder to nurture connections to regional businesses, especially the tech giants of nearby Silicon Valley.

Most alums concede that starting salaries (a median of $74,000) are low, but many wanted to avoid a cutthroat campus atmosphere and sought jobs in the affordable Sacramento area. Plus, many grads go into nonprofits or academia, and for them ROI is better measured in personal satisfaction than in C-notes.

University of California at Los Angeles Anderson School of Management Los Angeles, CA

Average GMAT 710 Tuition $26,039 (resident) $35,576 (nonresident) Enrollment 1,450

Recent grad David Schiff echoes the dreams of many Anderson students: "I would love to come up with a tangible product, something to hold up and say, it's mine." The school's entrepreneurship program gets top grades.

The diverse economy of Southern California affords grads access to tech, manufacturing, oil and gas, textiles, automotive, and, of course, Hollywood. With the help of alums in the entertainment industry, students regularly meet leaders from major studios--and about 7 percent land jobs in showbiz. Most grads go into financial services, consulting, or marketing. The median starting salary is $85,000.

Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business Pittsburgh, PA

Average GMAT 691 Tuition $38,800 Enrollment 661

The school is pricey, but most alumni say it's worth it. Tepper aggressively forges contacts between students and potential employers. The work of students in product-development programs and business-plan competitions is judged by real executives, who can also make hiring decisions. Proactive career center representatives visit scores of corporations to lure recruiters to campus. One negative, students say: too great a focus on financial services jobs, and thus too little help for those interested in marketing, operations, or less traditional disciplines such as biotech. The median base salary offered a Tepper grad is $85,000, with a signing bonus of close to $10,000.

University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Chicago, IL

Average GMAT 695 Tuition $36,520 Enrollment 2,520

"People assume you're brilliant if you went to Chicago," says David Thayer, a 1999 grad who now runs boutique hedge fund Turnkey Advisors. And that helps when recruiters come sniffing around. The school is considered a bastion of analytical rigor, with especially well-connected management consulting and investment banking clubs.

The school also recently opened a new campus HQ, beefed up its adjunct ranks, and revamped its career services office. The mean starting salary is $85,000, and most alums report that they've paid off their school debts within five years.

Columbia University Graduate School of Business New York, NY

Average GMAT 709 Tuition $36,296 Enrollment 1,196

Location, location, location. Access to the corporate elite is a subway ride away, and recruiters don't just show up at job fairs, they're a campus fixture. Big-dog guest lecturers often linger after speeches to meet students. And campus professional clubs routinely tap into the vast network of alumni (34,000 strong) for advice, internships, and jobs. The only nit, some say: The school is overly focused on finance.

Columbia pays off, with graduates saying they earn back tuition costs in three to five years--no surprise when the average starting salary tops $100,000.

Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management Ithaca, NY

Average GMAT 673 Tuition $34,400 Enrollment 544

To bowl over recruiters with a prospect's "real-life" experience, Johnson emphasizes "immersion" casework. The school makes students available as low-cost consultants, plus it gives fledgling investment analysts a chance to run a real-money hedge fund. The net result: reality-based talking points that score well in job interviews.

Ithaca is far afield, but Cornell flies in recruiters who might not otherwise pay a visit. The payoff is biggest in financial services, with Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and JPMorgan Chase among the major hirers. For the class of 2005, the median starting salary hit $88,000, with some signing bonuses topping $20,000.

Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business Hanover, NH

Average GMAT 704 Tuition $36,390 Enrollment 503

Tuck's career office gets very high marks. It reviews resumes, stages mock interviews, invites prominent executives to speak (and persuades them to hold office hours when students can meet them one-on-one), and attracts recruiters from about 450 companies. The school facilitates club trips to Wall Street, San Francisco, and overseas.

The success rate is impressive. Almost 75 percent of Tuck students get full-time offers from their summer internships, and more than half land positions in national corporations such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. With entry salaries that can hit $150,000, students report a total ROI within two to four years.

Duke University Fuqua School of Business Durham, NC

Average GMAT 705 Tuition $35,450 Enrollment 1,331

To lure corporate bigwigs to its faraway campus, Fuqua founded its Distinguished Speaker Series. The class schedule is cleared on Tuesday mornings so students can hear, and sometimes make vital contacts with, the likes of Jack Welch. Student clubs supplement networking opportunities by hosting executive-studded symposia.

After suffering mixed reviews, the career center has brought on a new director and beefed up services such as its now-extensive online database of alumni. Nine of 10 grads land jobs with national corporations.

Emory University Goizueta Business School Atlanta, GA

Average GMAT 680 Tuition $32,096 Enrollment 677

Home to 29 of the Fortune 1,000, Atlanta is a corporate hub, and Goizueta does everything it can to take full advantage of that. Local luminaries such as Home Depot chief executive Bob Nardelli are regular visitors, and Atlanta companies like Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and UPS are among the eager hirers. Sixty percent of Goizueta graduates land jobs in the South, pulling in a median salary of roughly $80,000--not fabulous, but remember, the region's cost of living is reasonable.

Some students complain that the placement office should cultivate more lucrative contacts on the coasts. But the school is hardly provincial; students are strongly encouraged to take at least one trip abroad during their tenure to explore international business opportunities. Goizueta gets high marks for its courses in ethics, leadership, and marketing. And many students say they were drawn by the school's fast-track one-year MBA program.

University of Florida Warrington College of Business Gainesville, FL

Average GMAT 666 Tuition $5,484 (resident) $21,359 (nonresident) Enrollment 763

Even though the median first-year salary is just over $60,000, Florida grads--or at least the many who stay in-state--can afford to buy houses and usually pay off school debt within two to four years. Recruiting gets mixed reviews, with several students dissing career services for weak efforts at connecting students with alums--a shortcoming being addressed by an invigorated alumni relations program. Regional businesses such as CSX, Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze), Ryder Systems, and Walt Disney World flock to the school, but getting attention from out-of-state corporations is tougher.

Harvard Business School Cambridge, MA

Average GMAT 707 Tuition $37,500 Enrollment 677

Measures of Harvard's clout: The school's job data bank lists more jobs than there are students, graduates receive an average of nearly four offers apiece, and almost every grad has a job within three months. The few complaints fault the school for focusing too tightly on the Northeast and on traditional fields such as investment banking. As pricey as the school is, the payoff can be substantial, with alumni reporting they tripled their pre-MBA earnings, often hauling in $110,000 in their first year.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management Cambridge, MA

Average GMAT 700 Tuition $39,844 Enrollment 372

Says one alum, "Sloan has a reputation for people going in as engineers but coming out as MBAs." Plenty of Sloan grads land tech jobs--but the school also churns out lots of finance and consulting specialists.

Job seekers have plenty of tools to help them. The core curriculum includes a career management class that puts students in the same room with alums and executives to do everything from defining long-term goals to honing interview skills. Impressive stats: 90 percent of grads get job offers within three months, and in the school's 53 years, more than 650 have founded companies.

University of Michigan Ross School of Business Ann Arbor, MI

Average GMAT 690 Tuition $31,500 (resident) $36,500 (nonresident) Enrollment 644

Successful job hunts are often credited to a highly touted buddy system: First-year students hook up with seconds, who tutor them on which clubs to join and where to look for internships. And second-year students reach out to alumni, who tell them where the jobs are and how to land them.

The career office gets credit for wooing legions of corporate recruiters to campus. Financial ROI is generally lower than that of big-city schools, but many grads stay in the Midwest, where the cost of living is more forgiving.

New York University Stern School of Business New York, NY

Average GMAT 700 Tuition $38,700 Enrollment 2,468

As strong as NYU's links to Wall Street are, the school is also raising its profile in fields such as media, entertainment, advertising, and socially responsible entrepreneurship.

Recruiting is a constant in a Stern student's life, so much so that some say it can distract from classwork--though ultimately in a good way. Most expect to wipe out all debt within five years, or even sooner for the roughly 80 percent who receive support from companies where they took a leave, interned, or have already been hired.

Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management Evanston, IL

Average GMAT 700 Tuition $38,844 Enrollment 2,600

"If ever there's an asylum that's run by the inmates, it's Kellogg," says 2004 graduate Edwin Van Dusen, now a consultant at Bain. Student clubs are aggressive in building networks, mining contacts, and even hiring their own job-hunting experts.

Kellogg is hailed for teaching marketing, but students in finance and banking also fare well. More than 300 companies--including A.T. Kearney, Deloitte, and McKinsey--recruit here, and nine out of 10 grads land jobs within three months.

Ohio State University Fisher College of Business Columbus, OH

Average GMAT 664 Tuition $17,181 (resident) $29,778 (nonresident) Enrollment 581

Fisher students and alumni are a close-knit group. "You aren't going to just be a number here," says Matt Eisenacher, a first-year marketing student. That often translates into jobs. Before Buckeye football games, students, grads, and local executives gather for brunch where networking is the main course. Student clubs host weekly lunches with recent alums and execs, and they keep logs of students' past interviews so upcoming grads know what employers are looking for. Teams of students are also sent into the community to provide free consulting in exchange for the learning experience.

Tuition is relatively reasonable, and virtually every grad finds work within three months, with mean starting pay of $77,000. Sixty percent stay in Ohio, with a strong showing in consumer goods (Cincinnati's Procter & Gamble is a major hirer).

University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business Philadelphia, PA

Average GMAT 716 Tuition $37,316 Enrollment 1,687

Wharton continues to attract the best of the best recruiters. Its location gives it easy access to East Coast power centers, and its quantitative curriculum commands respect. Adding to the appeal are innovative programs such as Global Immersion, in which students travel abroad to visit cutting-edge corporations, and the Private Equity Boot Camp, an intensive one-day event that attracts scores of professionals looking for hires.

Nine out of 10 grads have jobs within three months, and starting pay strikes a median around $90,000, with some grads pulling in more than $200,000.

Purdue University Krannert School of Management West Lafayette, IN

Average GMAT 667 Tuition $14,174 (resident) $28,076 (nonresident) Enrollment 320

Students call Krannert a savvy value play. Tuition is reasonable, and the local cost of living is a steal. And starting salaries, often $80,000 or more, are almost on par with those of grads from pricier schools. Some delighted recent alums report a 100 percent ROI in just over a year.

The school scores top marks in terms of successful job placement, drawing plenty of heavyweight scouters including General Electric, Intel, and United Technologies. Career services have been beefed up, though students say the office could do better in cultivating ties on the coasts.

University of Southern California Marshall School of Business Los Angeles, CA

Average GMAT 685 Tuition $35,904 Enrollment 1,330

If networking is key to landing jobs, then Marshall grads are in like Flynn. "We have a definite 'us vs. them' rather than 'me vs. you' attitude," says second-year student David Bishop. Student clubs are active in organizing round tables, site visits, and case competitions, almost always involving alums and guest executives. The career services office took its lumps for years, but in an ugly-duckling-to-swan story hired a new director and is now more aggressively wooing recruiters.

Graduates have a broad range of regional businesses to choose from--heavy industry, entertainment, biotech, etc. And, demonstrating the school's global view, Marshall requires every first-year student to visit businesses located in Pacific Rim countries such as Chile, China, and Thailand. Financial services leads in terms of hires, but Marshall places plenty of graduates in other industries, with Agilent, Disney, and Mattel among the top recruiters.

Stanford University Graduate School of Business Stanford, CA

Average GMAT 711 Tuition $41,340 Enrollment 753

Though most grads still follow traditional career paths, many take advantage of the proximity to Silicon Valley. Through alumni and the school's career services department, students make contacts, find internships, and begin careers in high-tech, venture capital, and biotech. The payoffs are immediate, with median starting salaries ranging from $80,000 for consumer services to $125,000 and beyond in private equity firms. Whereas the career office is described as a "well-oiled machine" in most respects, some students feel the system falters when it comes to finding jobs back East.

University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business Austin, TX

Average GMAT 670 Tuition $9,360 (resident) $24,450 (nonresident) Enrollment 942

Getting an MBA at McCombs is a team effort. There are dozens of student professional groups, and virtually every one hosts competitions where participants hone the creativity and team loyalty that businesses covet.

The career center has taken hits for its focus on regional mega-companies. Still, 300 corporations send recruiters. Half the grads stay in Texas (IT and energy companies rule, with Dell a major hirer), though they earn well below those who head for the coasts.

University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration Charlottesville, VA

Average GMAT 680 Tuition $32,300 (resident) $37,300 (nonresident) Enrollment 620

Darden's loyal alumni open plenty of doors, especially in the mid-Atlantic. The placement office has taken flak, but it's being revamped with a host of new programs, including one that sends students into big cities where they can press more flesh. Profs also help, with management guru John Colley frequently mentioned for his vast network of connections. Darden grads find work quickly, with the likes of Citigroup and Lehman Bros. at the front of the line.

University of Washington Business School Seattle, WA

Average GMAT 677 Tuition $14,780 (resident) $24,720 (nonresident) Enrollment 382

The school motto could be "Money isn't everything." Grads who sign with top-shelf corporations earn plenty, but most stay in the region, where salary levels are relatively modest. Washington students tend to define their ROI in terms of quality of life. "I know quite a few people who moved here just to be in the Pacific Northwest, without even thinking about jobs," says '03 grad Chip Wilcox. Besides, with such reasonable costs, it takes most alums only two to four years to recoup expenses and lost income.

The school sharpens entrepreneurial and tech-related skills. Scores of grads have gone on to found new companies. Nearby Fortune 1,000s like Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Starbucks, and Washington Mutual are all major recruiters. And those who see their futures farther afield give the career center high marks for organizing road trips to other corporate hubs.

Yale University School of Management New Haven, CT

Average GMAT 696 Tuition $36,800 Enrollment 440

The Yale name has potent cachet, but students report a sluggishness in the career office. A recent shakeup is helping, but there's still room for improvement. Yale maintains a first-rate reputation for producing leaders of all kinds, including for nonprofits and government, where 7 percent of the 2004 grads found work. The bigger monetary ROI lies in traditional financial services. Hooking up with American Express, Citigroup, Standard & Poor's, and other powerhouse firms, grads say they pay off the school's hefty tuition in two or three years.

Note: GMAT scores provided by the Princeton Review; all other data provided by the schools.