Huma Gruaz picked a precarious time in her personal life to enroll in a Master of Business Administration program.
She had just moved to Chicago from the suburbs. She had to figure out how to navigate life after a divorce. And she had just started her own company, a public relations firm called Alpaytac, hoping it would provide a means of supporting her two kids.
"Everyone around me thought I had lost my mind," she said. "It was an insane decision for me at the time."
Andrew Schrage had a choice to make about business school too. After graduating from Brown University, Schrage worked as a portfolio analyst for a hedge fund but then "grew restless regarding my career path."
Like Gruaz, he started his own company, a personal finance website called Money Crashers.
Schrage, 25, of Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, looked at the potential tuition of an MBA program, figured it would cost him about $100,000 (not including lost income from attending school full time) and, unlike Gruaz, decided not to apply.
Gruaz and Schrage said they made a decision about an MBA that felt right for them. And both are still running their Chicago-based companies.
So what does that say about the value of investing the energy and money into a Master of Business Administration degree?
"Nothing requires you to have an MBA," said Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at test preparation and admissions consulting company Veritas Prep, who has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "You can be the CEO of a company without an MBA. You can launch a business without an MBA. So there has to be some soul searching. 'What is it going to teach me? Do I really want to come out with $50K or $100K in debt?' It would be crazy not to ask those questions."
As careers evolve and supersuccessful entrepreneurs rise in profile without the benefit of business school — think Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Spanx's Sara Blakely — the scope and purpose of obtaining an MBA has changed too. Few students these days enroll with their education fully paid for by their companies. And although statistics show a relationship between an MBA and a salary increase, few are guaranteed an immediate bump in salary upon graduating. Then there's the prospect of student loan debt, which averages about $44,000, including undergraduate debt, for MBA students at graduation, according to FinAid.org.
An MBA does, however, allow for a career pivot, equipping students with the long-term knowledge to innovate and manage growth.
Because so many business resources are available nowadays online, "students are looking at education differently," said Tim Faley, managing director of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
"They don't need to walk into a classroom and have someone tell them the fundamentals of whatever topic," Faley said. "What they do need to know is how those pieces fit together."
In addition to a holistic view of business, MBA students also graduate with a network for life.
"No one really goes for an MBA just to learn," said Imran Ahmad, 28, who is pursuing his MBA at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business while shaping a business venture called Edit Huddle, an editing tool for blogs and websites. "With an MBA, it's a lot of networking and meeting as many people as possible and building your own brand."
An MBA also gives students who want to make significant career shifts "insight and access into a variety of careers that they haven't even thought about," said Doreen Amorosa, managing director of the Office of MBA Career Management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "Their ideas crystallize as a result of being in an MBA program."
Kersten Kelly saw her MBA as an "insurance policy for myself that would benefit me in the future for almost every job." She noted that the vast majority of jobs that interested her required a bachelor's degree and preferred an MBA.
When she did graduate with her MBA last year from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, Kelly, 25, took a job as a regional sales manager with Chicago's Schulze & Burch Biscuit Co.
Kelly said she saw a roughly 10 percent salary increase, and she said the knowledge she gained from learning about the business experiences of her professors and peers could not be equaled by textbooks or how-to business videos on YouTube.
The decision of where to go for an MBA program also matters, depending on what you want to do, said Jon Frank, CEO of Admissionado, formerly Precision Essay, an admissions consulting company.
"Some top firms will only recruit at top programs," said Frank, of Chicago's Logan Square, who received an MBA from Harvard Business School. Even so, "the real value is in the people that you're going to meet. This is going to be the smartest room of people you will ever meet in your life."
For Gruaz, she said her company has flourished since she graduated with her MBA in 2008 from Northwestern's Kellogg.
Her firm has grown from a handful of Chicago employees to a staff of 22, with offices in New York and Los Angeles. Throughout Alpaytac's growth, Gruaz said, she has employed case studies and principles on leadership taught by her professors.
In a position to hire people herself, Gruaz, 45, said she sees a person with an MBA as a "door opener for a job interview." After that and the requisite work experience, she said, it's all about being a "superperformer."
"What you'll get from your MBA is really dependent on your whole outlook on it," she said. "It's not going to happen like magic, even if you go to the best MBA school. If you don't have the best attitude in your work, you're not going to get anywhere.
"It's really about taking every situation and that education and really applying it to your life."
Here are Illinois universities whose business schools are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which says it has accredited less than 5 percent of the world's business programs: Bradley University, DePaul University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois State University, Loyola University Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Springfield, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Western Illinois University.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times