Stanford MBA price tag hits $185K: Highest in the world

December 7, 2012: 1:53 PM ET

The total cost to attend Stanford's prestigious business school has jumped by $18,242 in just two years, besting Columbia as the world's most expensive MBA program.

By John A. Byrne

(Poets&Quants) -- Stanford's Graduate School of Business has leapfrogged the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Columbia Business School to become the most expensive two-year MBA program in the world, according to an analysis by Poets&Quants.

This year, Stanford is telling applicants that the estimated cost of its two-year, full-time MBA program is a whopping $185,054, a new record. That is some $18,242 more than Stanford said it would cost an MBA student only two years ago, when Columbia was the school with the most expensive MBA program in the world. At that time, Columbia estimated that the cost to attend its MBA program was $168,307, while third-place Stanford's price tag was $166,812. In just two years, Stanford's estimated cost of the degree has risen by 10.9%, though the estimate includes a $4,000 global study trip.

Harvard Business School, Stanford's No. 1 rival, now costs over $20,000 less in estimated charges, even though it is in pricey Boston. The Stanford program is also $25,860 more than the cost of an MBA for a non-resident student at nearby UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. The actual difference between Harvard and Stanford is even greater because Harvard hands out an average $26,745 in annual fellowship money for its MBA students, far more than any other business school.

The total cost of the Stanford program includes two years worth of tuition, fees, books and supplies, mandatory medical insurance, the estimated costs to live and eat in Silicon Valley, and the $4,000 cost for a global study trip. Stanford says that its $23,391 estimate for rent, food, and personal expenses is for a "moderate lifestyle."

But as often is the case, these estimated numbers by the business schools tend to be conservative. They rarely include the inevitable 3% to 5% increase in tuition during a student's second year. And they tend to underestimate the "personal costs" of attending an elite MBA program, from expensive dinners out with friends to traveling to ski resorts over long weekends with new student friends.

The actual annual MBA tuition at Stanford is just $57,300, but all the additional costs add up quickly. According to Stanford, they include $2,184 a year in books and supplies, $1,710 a year in "instructional materials," $963 for "transportation," $3,600 for medical insurance, and an annual $537 "health fee."

If a single student decides to live off-campus, Stanford says the cost of the MBA program will likely be $195,580 -- another $10,500. For a married student living off-campus, the school says the cost will be a breathtaking $220,822. "Depending on marital status and other factors," says Stanford, "you should budget an additional $30,000 to $47,000 per year for living costs, books, and other expenses."

New York University's Stern School of Business is this year's second most expensive MBA program. Stern estimates the cost of its two-year program to be $184,532, thanks in part to its annual room and board cost estimate of $24,472. That is the highest estimate for housing and food by any business school, though anyone who has lived in New York would tell you it is impossible to feed yourself and live in a studio apartment for that sum.

For its part, Cornell's Johnson School notes that its estimate for housing and food is based on "sharing a moderately priced apartment" that would cost $800 a month and putting aside $450 monthly for food. That is at least possible in Ithaca, New York.

While the annual tuition rates range from a high of $62,034 at Wharton to a low of $52,900 at Duke University's Fuqua School, there is far greater variety in the estimates of additional costs. Dartmouth College's Tuck School figures that it costs only $12,643 for a year's worth of room and board on-campus. But Wharton estimates that the annual cost for room and board in Philadelphia is considerably higher, $20,644.

The most expensive books and supplies are estimated by Harvard Business School, which largely teaches by case study method. Harvard says the yearly cost to an MBA student for those case studies and other course materials is a sky-high $6,690. Columbia Business School, by comparison, estimates books and supplies to be a mere $900 a year. More typically, top schools estimate that the cost of an annual supply of books and course materials are about $2,000. Chicago Booth figures MBA students pay about $2,100 a year, while UC-Berkeley Haas says its MBA candidates are shelling out $2,500 a year.

Most of the best international schools are far cheaper than their U.S. counterparts. London Business School now says the cost of its MBA program, including housing and personal expenses, is $111,549 -- some $92,288 in total tuition and fees and the rest for food, accommodation, books, school trips, and travel home. INSEAD's 10-month MBA program in Fontainebleau, France costs an estimated $107,449.

Of course, Stanford has one offsetting factor to offer MBA applicants, besides the palm trees and mild weather of Northern California. The median total compensation for a freshly minted MBA from Stanford this year was $185,000. So at least there's plenty of cash to quickly pay down those student loans.

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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