I used to fantasize about what it would be like to attend Harvard Business School.
I could see myself wearing Crimson and living in Cambridge.
I pictured exotic trips with friends, interviews with top consulting firms, and a big fat salary post-graduation.
In late 2012, I bought a GMAT prep book and was ready to buckle down and start studying.
Considering Student Loan Debt and the MBA
In early 2013, I started to acknowledge that I still had $20k+ in student loan debt from undergrad.
I was coming up on my two year anniversary of graduation and yet I had made little progress on my student loans.
One night I was googling student loan debt and came across Joe from No More Harvard Debt.
Joe was a Harvard Business School graduate who left school with over $100k of student loan debt.
He lived a life of expensive cars, meals, and dates until he completely transformed his life and paid off his debt in 10 months.
His blog tracks his debt pay off but more importantly, the personal growth he experienced in the process.
This blog influenced me greatly.
I was surprised to see what was behind the curtain in the life of a Harvard Business School graduate.
It was also the first time I thought about the $100k of debt I would take on by going to business school.
I decided to table my business school pursuits until I could get my undergraduate student loans under control.
Realizing IT Careers Rock
By the summer of 2013, I had been working for six months in the software engineering department of a financial services company.
While I never saw myself pursuing a career in technology (my college major was Political Science), I fell into the field and I enjoyed it.
To my surprise, I was quickly offered the chance to interview for a management position.
I already felt like I was making a decent salary but with this promotion, I was looking at a $15k raise.
I started to realize that there were other ways to make good money and obtain a management position than getting an MBA.
Pursuing a Technical Degree
Now that I was responsible for leading a team, I wanted to have the credentials to back it up. I needed a more technical degree.
While I don’t regret getting a liberal arts degree, I definitely see the value in getting a technical degree.
When I look at schools with the top return on investment, I see schools such as Colorado School of Mines and Georgie Tech top the list.
I started researching graduate programs in Computer Systems.
Going Part-Time to Minimize Opportunity Cost
If I took my salary and projected raises for two years, then added the cost of school on top of that, I was looking at a loss of nearly $300,000 to go back to school.
I can think of 100 better things I could do with $300,000 (like invest-ha!)
I decided to apply to a part-time program.
It was definitely the right choice for me.
In the two years that I would have been in a full-time program, I doubled my salary and received two more promotion opportunities.
Finding the Right Part-Time Program
At first, I planned to apply to a program at a local university.
Except the school wasn’t thrilled about accepting a student with a non-technical undergraduate degree into the program.
After a harsh call with the school, who said “I wouldn’t be able to handle the rigor of the program,” I had to come up with a plan B.
(This conversation upset me greatly. I don’t like when others place limits on me).
It all worked out in the end though.
My plan B was an online program at a good school.
As a bonus, the program did not require the GRE or the GMAT for admission. I saved countless hours of prep and money.
My Fears About an Online Program
At first, I was hesitant to apply to an online program, especially one without strict admission criteria, because I thought it didn’t “look as good” as a full-time program.
My fears turned out to be untrue.
Education is changing and online programs are gaining respect and acceptance.
My degree has added greatly to my resume.
While researching scholarship opportunities, I found a scholarship to attend a conference for women in technology.
The scholarship was competitive but I applied anyways and was accepted alongside students from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Harvard.
I attended the career fair at the conference and received a job offer from a top technology company.
I also applied on my own to another top technology company and received another offer.
The degree has helped open doors for me.
Maximizing Tuition Reimbursement
Many employers offer $5,250 worth of tuition reimbursement each year.
I was lucky enough to receive 80% reimbursement from my first employer up to $5,250 per year.
This money was given to me with no strings attached – meaning I did not have to stay at the company for a certain amount of time after receiving the reimbursement.
I collected $5,250 per year for my first two years.
I only took two courses per year in those first two years so I only paid a few thousand dollars out of pocket.
I was willing to take longer with the degree in order to pay less in total.
In my third year of the degree, I switched employers and was eligible to collect $5,250 from both employers.
(Unfortunately, I left the first company before I could apply for the full $5,250 worth of reimbursement but it’s a pretty awesome hack).
My second employer offered 100% tuition reimbursement with no payback requirement or six months waiting period.
I also received a significant salary boost from the new job and was able to pay off my debt and my spouse’s debt in record time.
Overall, I received nearly $20,000 in tuition reimbursement over three years and there is more coming.
I’ve waited to submit my Fall 2016 tuition reimbursement until January of the coming year.
I’ll be eligible for another $5,250 for 2017 which will bring the total to around $25,000 total reimbursement for the degree.
Tax Deductions on Top of Tuition Reimbursement
I did not quality for the American Opportunity Credit (since I was in grad school versus undergrad), the Lifetime Learning Credit (my income was too high), or the Student Loan Interest deduction (my income was too high).
I could have figured out how to use a 529 for my own education but didn’t research that option at that time.
Since my first employer only reimbursed 80% of my tuition, I could though deduct the 20% of tuition I had to pay out of pocket as work-related expenses.
There are certain criteria that need to be met in order to deduct the expenses as work-related such as my employer not requiring the education for the job.
Check out the IRS Guide on Tax Benefits for Education for additional detail on the options available to students.
Choosing Classes with My Wallet
I also found a way to lesson the cost of the degree by making strategic course choices.
I noticed that some math and other foundational courses billed at a lower rate than the other graduate courses.
I switched concentrations mid-degree so that I could take advantage of the lower rates.
I also requested and ultimately got a more expensive required course waved (by demonstrating that I had equivalent work experience to the course) and replaced it with a less expensive course.
I chose cheaper electives where I could.
I still learned a good deal in those “cheaper” courses and don’t think I missed out by not choosing the more expensive courses.
Do I Regret Not Getting My MBA?
In no way do I regret not getting my MBA.
It’s been over 5 years since I graduated college and in that time, I’ve achieved the professional and financial success I hoped for at graduation.
I’ve seen many acquaintances from undergrad pursuing their MBAs and going on expensive networking trips but I was able to achieve a post-MBA salary without the cost of tuition, expenses or the opportunity cost of pausing my employment.
I don’t doubt that MBAs help people get ahead, it just wasn’t necessary for me to get an MBA to get ahead.
I just finished the last course in my program earlier this month and will graduate with my M.S. in January.
Do you have any tips on hacking your education? Are MBAs worth it?
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