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The highest (and lowest) paid MBAs

January 28, 2014: 9:51 AM ET

A Poets&Quants analysis of 2013 employment reports at most of the world's top business schools shows that there was no shortage of extraordinary pay days for the best and brightest MBA grads.

By John A. Byrne

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A thirty-something MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management landed a $375,000-a-year gig in investment management.

(Poets&Quants) -- $375,000.

That's the starting base salary for the highest paid MBA in the class of 2013. It's a princely sum for a freshly minted graduate of a business school, and it may be even more surprising that the MBA is not from Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton. Or, for that matter, London Business School or INSEAD.

Instead, it was a thirty-something MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who landed the $375,000-a-year gig for an investment management job. The eye-popping salary was more than three times the $110,000 median for other classmates going into the same industry. Even more surprising, though, is the fact that the big pay day in finance came at Kellogg where only 3% of this year's graduates went into investment management and just 19% of the entire class went into financial jobs at all.

Business school employment reports, of course, do not identify the actual students who accepted their offers. In fact, some schools, including Harvard Business School and Yale University's School of Management, don't even report on the maximum and minimum salaries received by the graduating members of the latest class. They reveal only the 25th and 75th percentile numbers, along with medians and means.

But a Poets&Quants analysis of 2013 employment reports at most of the world's top business schools shows that there was no shortage of extraordinary pay days for the best and brightest MBA grads. After Kellogg, the highest reported base salaries for new MBAs were $350,000 at Wharton, $310,000 at Columbia, $260,000 at Duke University's Fuqua School, and $250,000 at Chicago Booth. In almost every case, MBAs who are making such outsized sums to start are in private equity, hedge funds, or other investment management jobs to which they bring relevant work experience.

Still, in 2013, the fourth year in a row of an MBA jobs recovery from the economic implosion of 2008-2009, the exceptional pay package didn't seem all that rare. At Northwestern, for example, besides the $375,000 investment management job, presumably at a hedge fund, there was a $350,000 base salary hire by a private equity firm, a $225,000 base salary for an MBA who went into the energy industry, and a $206,000 base for an MBA who took a job in "transportation services." Kellogg grads who went into venture capital and consulting also landed awfully rich pay packages with base salaries of $175,000 each. None of those sums include sign-on bonuses or other guaranteed compensation, which would further enlarge all those high numbers.

Truth is, total compensation packages -- including sign-on bonuses, guaranteed year-end bonuses, tuition reimbursements, and equity interests -- are more elusive. Very few schools report total comp for the highest paid members of their graduating classes. But in some cases, guaranteed other compensation -- which schools generally report out separately -- can be as high or higher than base pay. At Wharton, for example, a 2013 MBA got a guaranteed year-end bonus of $260,000. Another received tuition reimbursement of $150,000, while one Whartonite was handed $100,000 to sign an employment contract. The University of Virginia's Darden School also reported that the highest sign-on and guaranteed year-end bonuses were in the six-figures as well.

Or consider Stanford Graduate School of Business. This year, one Stanford MBA who took a job in private equity reported a guaranteed annual bonus of $337,500 -- a sum that does not even include potential tuition reimbursement, relocation expenses, auto allowances, profit sharing, stock or stock options. That bonus alone was more than the base salary of any Stanford 2013 grad. If that lucky student received the median base salary in private equity of $150,000 along with the median signing bonus of $35,000, a likely possibility, the person's total first-year compensation would be a minimum of $522,500.

At Harvard Business School, the median -- yes median -- other guaranteed compensation for MBAs going into private equity, venture capital, or leveraged buyouts was $150,000. Add that to the median base salary of $150,000 and throw in the median signing bonus of $27,500. A Harvard grad just receiving the median numbers across the board is looking at a first-year pay package of $327.500. And 11% of the graduating class of 903 MBAs at HBS went into one of those three highly lucrative fields.

Of course, looking at the extreme highs in pay can easily create unrealistic expectations. So it's equally important to have a look at the other extreme: how little an MBA from a top school can make. More often than not, the lowest reported starting salaries are accepted by graduates who venture into the non-profit or social sector -- or who take jobs with massive potential payouts at year-end. The year's lowest reported salary: Just $10,000 for a UCLA Anderson MBA who went into private equity and venture capital. You know that this person's W2 at the end of the year will not show total income of 10 grand.

Yet, at several top schools, there were plenty of grads who reported accepting jobs that paid $50,000 a year or less -- far below the average pre-MBA pay of their classmates. A Fuqua MBA who went the social enterprise route accepted a $24,000-a-year job. An MBA in the class of 2013 at the University of Michigan's Ross School reported receiving a $15,000-a-year position in "services," also presumably in the social sector. The lowest paid Wharton grad walked out with a $30,000 job in an unknown field.

In a surprising number of cases, the lowest paid MBAs were not the non-profit types. At INSEAD, the lowest paid graduate in 2012 (the school's commencement for its one-year MBA program is in December) was just $21,900 for a corporate planning job in media and entertainment in the Asia Pacific region. At Stanford, one MBA reported taking a $40,000-a-year job in consumer products and services, probably with a startup and a piece of equity. The lowest starting salary for the 5% of Stanford grads who went into the non-profit sector was $75,000, well above the lows in technology as well as media and entertainment. In fact, the high was a respectable $98,000 base. Nice work if you can get it, especially for a non-profit.

Highest Reported Base Salaries By Top Business Schools In 2013

Source: Business school employment reports for 2013.  Note: * Conservative stimate based on HBS only disclosing top 75th percentile of base. ** INSEAD data for 2012 due to December graduation date.

Source: Business school employment reports for 2013. Note: * Conservative stimate based on HBS only disclosing top 75th percentile of base. ** INSEAD data for 2012 due to December graduation date.

Lowest Reported Base Salaries By Top Business Schools In 2013

Source: Business school employment reports for 2013.  Note: * Conservative stimate based on HBS only disclosing top 75th percentile of base. ** INSEAD data for 2012 due to December graduation date.

Source: Business school employment reports for 2013. Note: * Conservative stimate based on HBS only disclosing top 75th percentile of base. ** INSEAD data for 2012 due to December graduation date.

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