Graduate degrees have long been viewed as one of the most promising ways to climb the corporate ladder and secure that corner-office job. For many, the best passport to success is a master's of business administration or MBA.

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, in 2011, the average expected starting salary for an MBA graduate was nearly $91,000. On top of that, 78 percent of those graduates say they received a promotion post-MBA. Sounds great, right? Not so fast. The GMAC also reports that this year, seven in 10 MBAs will graduate with considerable debt.

That leaves prospective students with an important decision: Continue onward into the corporate world with only a bachelor's degree or invest further.

Dr. Roger Jenkins, dean of Miami University's Farmer School of Business, believes the choice to pursue an MBA should be based on more than just the financial costs and gains. It's important to assess the skills and knowledge needed to advance a career. The average MBA student has worked between six and 10 years since college graduation to make that assessment.

"These young professionals realize they have a great job, but want to make sure they are investing in the future," he says. "If a person is unhappy with his or her own career development, the MBA becomes a very powerful tool," he says.

Increasing Marketability

Dr. Christopher Moyer, a professor in the business program at Thomas More College, says an MBA allows job seekers to increase their marketability and ultimately their chances of getting hired.

"Having a master's degree is the next logical step a person can take to differentiate oneself," he says. "More and more people are pursuing master's degrees because of that."

Brenden Zenni is one such example. The 29-year old enrolled in Thomas More's part-time MBA program to open doors in his career down the road.

"There's a perception that today's college degree is comparable to yesterday's high school diploma," he says. "Taking it a step further, a graduate degree has become more like last generation's bachelor's degree."

Unlike many MBA students, Zenni is attending business school loan-free. Because he has the flexibility of attending classes once a week, Zenni, a full-time working professional, can pay as he goes.

According to Moyer, who was part of the team that built Thomas More's MBA program in 1996, part-time schooling is growing in popularity for people like Zenni because it offers a better return on investment for students.

Work and School

"More and more schools are using programs that allow students to maintain careers without putting everything on hold for two years," Moyer says. Thomas More College offers accelerated courses that allow students to finish their degree in less than two years.

This makes the finances more manageable because students can rely less on potentially crippling loans and focus on paying their way through school.

But for young professionals, the financial burden remains a challenge. In fact, half of MBA programs reported fewer incoming applications this year than in 2011, according to the GMAC.

Despite the slight decline, graduate programs, particularly those business-related, have continued to grow in prominence throughout the Tristate.

Miami University's part-time MBA program is a testament to their success. Recently ranked on US News and World Report's list of the nation's best graduate business schools, the highly praised program holds classes at the Voice of America Learning Center in West Chester.

Besides a world-class faculty, in Jenkins' eyes, a big factor in the program's development is its location.

Location, Location, Location

"West Chester is one of the fastest growing areas both commercially and residentially in the state of Ohio," Jenkins says. "Holding classes in that metro area is a convenience for young professionals aimed to make their lives a little easier."

But growth hasn't come without setbacks. Although it was ranked as a top 10 accelerated MBA program internationally by the Wall Street Journal in 2009, Miami University recently announced its full-time program, part of the Farmer School of Business, will be suspended following the graduating class of summer 2012.

"We suspended the full-time program because we couldn't grow it fast enough to make it economically viable," Jenkins says.

The University of Cincinnati "” the only remaining school in the region with both a part-time and a traditional, full-time MBA program "” boasts its own share of accolades, according to Dr. David Szymanski, dean of the UC Carl H. Lindner College of Business.

The US News & World Report recently named the business school among the top 10 in the nation in terms of financial value upon graduation. Szymanski says research has shown UC's MBA graduates have a starting salary of $62,000 coupled with about $22,000 in debt "” close to $10,000 less debt than the average among MBA students.

That's good news for prospective
students concerned about committing their time and funds to a business school in the Tristate area.

"The uncertainty in the economy has a lot of people living more day-to-day rather than thinking long-term about their careers," Moyer says. "In the long run, pursuing a master's degree is a very good investment."

Long-term Investment

Times have changed when it comes to making that investment, however.

"Fifteen years ago the majority of our students had employer reimbursement for their coursework," Moyer says. "Companies seem to be setting that aside for now, and that's made a lot of potential students rethink the decision to pursue a college degree."

According to the GMAC, current students interested in pursuing an MBA indicate a greater financial reliance on personal earnings and support from parents than in years past.

Despite the daunting prospect of racking up more debt, the benefit of earning an MBA is clear. So clear, says Szymanski, that he views it as a necessity.

"It's become a competitive comparative," Szymanski says. "There's an expectation that a person moving up in their career has some sort of graduate degree. Employers look to the person who has more schooling, more skills, and greater depth of knowledge."

Zenni, who attends classes on Tuesday evenings and expects to graduate with his MBA in fall 2013, says he had planned to pursue the degree since he graduated with a bachelor's seven years ago.

"I'm passionate about the business world and I've always enjoyed learning my craft," he says. "This is the best way to make me a more well-rounded businessman." - 

"If a person is unhappy with his or her own career development, the MBA becomes a very powerful tool."