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MBA Sponsorship: The Business School’s Perspective

Getting an MBA is one of the most rewarding investments you can make in yourself. It pays off in expanded career opportunities and enormous personal growth – and often a nice salary bump. 

But before you can reap all these benefits, you must first find a way to cover the hefty costs of an MBA, which can run from $60,000 to $180,000 for tuition and fees at top schools for a full-time, in-person MBA. And you may be shelling out all of that while stepping out of the workforce and foregoing your salary.

One attractive option is seeking financial support from your employer. Corporate sponsorship for an MBA program can be a win-win situation for you and your company, and many offer some level of support. Data Fortuna collected from our clients applying to MBA programs showed that about 30 percent had access to funding from their companies. 

In this article we explore:

How both students and companies benefit from MBA sponsorship

For businesses, sponsoring employees to pursue an MBA can be a strategic investment in the firm’s human capital, and a way to develop and retain top talent. The sponsorship can pay off as MBAs return with new skills and fresh ideas that drive innovation, improve business strategies, and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

For you, the applicant, corporate-sponsored MBA programs help you advance your career while minimizing the financial burden of pursuing an MBA. With financial backing, you can focus on your studies, build your network, and immerse yourself in all the experiences that make an MBA program so rewarding — without the added stress of student loans or part-time jobs. 

How business schools view corporate sponsorship

If your company will cover some of the costs of your MBA, you may be wondering how that corporate sponsorship will affect your chances of getting in. How do admissions committees view candidates who apply with their firm’s financial support in hand? 

Fortuna’s admissions insiders agree that in their experience, sponsorship is viewed as a solid endorsement of an MBA applicant’s potential. 

“It’s a nuanced issue, since all sponsorships are not equal, but generally speaking, sponsorship is positive since it indicates a company’s commitment to the candidate. That willingness to invest in the employee signals superior work performance,” says Peter Johnson, Fortuna director and former assistant dean for the Full-time MBA Program & Admissions at Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Jayne Mulcahy, a Fortuna expert coach who reviewed MBA applications at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, agrees. “From a candidate quality standpoint, we viewed it as the company identifying the candidate as a superstar they wanted to retain after the MBA.” (Corporate policies vary, but typically generous tuition support comes with the stipulation that the employee will return to the firm and work for a set number of years after graduation.) “Companies don’t give sponsorship to all their MBA-bound employees, so it was a positive distinguishing factor,” Mulcahy adds.

In essence, corporate sponsorship is like a strong recommendation letter from the applicant’s company. Business schools see this as an endorsement; the company is essentially vouching for the applicant’s potential and leadership abilities. Admissions committees recognize that these individuals have already demonstrated their value within their organizations and are likely to contribute meaningfully to the business school community.


Additional upsides of sponsorship

Corporate sponsorship assures business schools that the applicant brings high-quality work experience to the classroom. Admissions committees value applicants who bring a wealth of skills and industry knowledge to the classroom and can share real-world insights and experiences with their peers. And because sponsored MBAs hail from different industries, roles, and backgrounds, they bring a welcome diversity of experience and viewpoints to the class, enriching the overall educational experience for their peers.

Another upside is that sponsored MBA applicants often have an extended network within their organizations. They can leverage these connections to benefit the business school community. They bring the potential for enhanced collaboration and partnerships between the school and their employers, creating opportunities for internships, mentorship, and recruiting. 

Sponsorship brings other benefits from the business school’s point of view: “The financial security afforded by sponsorship allows the school to use its own financial aid resources on other candidates,” says Fortuna director Michael F. Malone, a former associate dean at Columbia Business School. “Also, sponsored students enroll with the security of knowing they have a job to return to. “Since sponsored students aren’t devoting as much time to job searching, they potentially could be more engaged in the community and contribute more to the MBA class,” Malone adds.

The assurance of a job is also important for international students. Fortuna expert coach Rachel Erickson Hee recalls her client being asked about their sponsorship during an interview for admission to Harvard Business School. “It sounded like in this case, their sponsorship and the fact that they had a return offer were important,” she says.

What corporate sponsorship is available for your MBA? 

Corporate financial support for employees seeking an MBA comes in many forms. Generous packages that cover full tuition and expenses are most likely to be found in the consulting industry, but there are exceptions. UPS will cover the full cost of MBA tuition, but employees must stay with the company for two years after graduating. 

That level of sponsorship is thought to be in decline in the US, because in today’s highly mobile career ecosystem employees don’t always stay with the sponsoring firm long enough for the investment in their skills to pay off for the company. This is less true in other regions of the world; corporate sponsorship is still available in places like Korea, Singapore, and Japan, where job stability is greater.

Many Fortune 500 firms offer some form of tuition reimbursement for MBAs; this can range from $3,500 per year (from Kroger) to $50,000 (from Intel), or full tuition. For example, Disney’s Aspire program, pays 100% of tuition upfront for eligible hourly employees to earn an MBA at schools in its approved network. Salaried employees are eligible for tuition reimbursement.

Other companies, like Walgreens and United Airlines, are negotiating tuition discounts for employees with selected universities. 

Some insurance companies are creating customized MBA programs for their staff. UnitedHealth Group sponsors their own health care MBA (HCMBA) program with the University of St. Thomas and enrolls a cohort of 23 employees every two years. Cigna partners with the University of Hartford Barney School of Business to offer a customized, accelerated MBA and pays for 75 employees to attend each year. 

In most cases, the employee also has a contractual commitment to return to the sponsoring company for a specific period of time, and if they don’t, it may become a loan,” Johnson notes.


How sponsorship affects financial aid

It’s a big help when your company will help pay for your MBA, but in many cases, the financial support will not cover your full tuition and expenses, leaving you with at least some financial need. 

Most MBA programs will not give scholarships to students whose tuition is fully covered by their company. Some schools like INSEAD will consider granting scholarships to cover any gap if the sponsorship does not cover full tuition. For example, if your company sponsorship covers 90% of tuition, a scholarship can top off support up to the full tuition amount. Also, don’t forget, sometimes there is an opportunity to negotiate your financial aid package.

Sponsored students can also apply for loans to help cover unmet living expenses. At US schools, citizens or permanent residents are eligible for student loan funding, and that may be possible for international students as well if the schools have partnership arrangements with lenders. 


Sponsorship is not always a guarantee

Although sponsorship is generally viewed as a positive endorsement, business school admissions committees know that there are always exceptions to the rules. Sponsored students are expected to forego recruiting and return to jobs in their firms. However, Johnson says, “I saw examples of sponsored students who obtained internships and ultimately job offers from other companies, and then upon graduation, paid back the sponsorship in part with money from a signing bonus.” 

At Northwestern, Mulcahy saw many sponsored students who opted for new jobs —and paying back the tuition — instead of returning to their employer. “They decided the cost to pay for the MBA themselves was worth being able to pivot to something different after graduation,” she says.

And sometimes, admissions professionals know, sponsorship can make students less, rather than more engaged. Fortuna co-founder and director Caroline Diarte Edwards saw a few cases of this in her former role as director of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid at INSEAD. “Very occasionally, we would have sponsored students who were less engaged in the classroom, as they came to INSEAD because it was expected by their employer. It was pretty much a free ride, so they weren’t as invested in getting the most out of the experience —and took it pretty easy.

So, she says, if you are a sponsored candidate, “it’s good to show you are thoroughly committed to the entire MBA experience, especially if you are from a company where getting an MBA is almost a prerequisite for getting promoted. You need to show that you are not just doing the MBA to jump through that hoop.”

For more information on financing your MBA, Fortuna offers tips and advice and information on how to find and secure fellowships and assistantships. To learn more about how Fortuna can help get you into the MBA program of your dreams, schedule a free consultation


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