The earning power of an MBA degree is often a selling point for business schools, especially when they do well on international rankings.
Every two years, Forbes Magazine measures participating schools on the salary growth for MBA graduates five years after earning the degree compared to what they gave up in lost pay, tuition and other expenses while at school.
This year, three Canadian schools made the magazine's "return on investment" list. HEC Montréal ranked 12th among one-year programs, while York University's Schulich School of Business and the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business placed 10th and 11th, respectively, among two-year programs.
But does that tell the whole story?
Far from it, say business school officials and recent graduates. Salary growth – not to be sniffed at – is only part of the picture when weighing the financial risks and rewards of the MBA.
"Return on investment is a really great metric that every prospective student should be calculating – it is an investment decision," says Michael Wybo, MBA program director at HEC Montréal.
"But return on investment has career limiting or career opening implications."
For example, a student aiming for a six-figure investment banking career can expect to pay off the cost of a high-tuition program faster than a budding entrepreneur or someone in the non-profit sector.
"When students do this ROI calculation, they need to be realistic about what they want to do at the end and how much they can pay for it," he says.
Schulich dean Dezso Horvath says rising tuition costs and reduced employer support (already low) mean applicants need to make a holistic evaluation that factors in access to scholarships and low-interest loans.
"It was part of our strategy when we started increasing fees to allocate large amounts of resources to fund scholarships," he says. "We are interested in people who are good, not only those who can afford it."
Others say intangible gains that come from networking and personal growth are as important.
"What is it about the student experience that helps explain who gets the biggest lift?" asks Walid Hejazi, associate professor of international business at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. His answer is a combination of strong grades, interpersonal skills and networks.
"One needs to develop all three to get the maximum lift that results from an MBA," he says. At Rotman, the average graduate reports a doubling of salary after the program.
As a policy, the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School has chosen to participate in two global MBA rankings (Financial Times and BusinessWeek), but not any others. On the FT ranking, which measures alumni salary prior to and three years after earning the MBA, Ivey in London, Ont., tops the list of Canadian schools at $103,112 (U.S.).
"I tell candidates that every school has a slightly different value proposition," says Fraser Johnson, director of Ivey's MBA program. "As we evaluate candidates in terms of their fit for the school and their attractiveness, I expect them to be evaluating us in the same way."
Ivey offers a one-year program based on case-method teaching, with more than half of students winning some scholarship funds. Rotman's two-year program includes a summer internship, with almost 70 per cent of participants in high-paying financial services and consulting jobs.
It was a summer internship in currency trading in 2012 that persuaded then-Rotman MBA student and former corporate banker Andre Ayotte Jr. to pursue his entrepreneurial passion.
"When I set out to do an MBA it was not about making more money," says Mr. Ayotte, 29, co-founder and partner of JM & Sons, an online furniture designer and manufacturer. "For me, it was to discover a new way of thinking and apply that to my personal and business life."
Switching careers is common, which puts the onus on MBA students to imagine future possibilities, says Murali Chandrashekaran, associate dean of professional graduate programs at Sauder in Vancouver.
"If students are not ready for a transformative experience, then they need to think twice about it [an MBA]." He adds, "It is not just about the pocketbook, it is about the heart."
For 2008 HEC graduate Montu Gupta, postgraduation salary prospects figured low on his MBA checklist.
"I was trying to make a career switch and get into something I like where I can mentally engage myself fully and passionately," says the former engineer who now works in business investments for Royal Bank of Canada.
The MBA "completely reset my mindset and made it more entrepreneurial," Mr. Gupta says. Networking contributed to his positive experience. A scholarship student who graduated with no debt, he and several fellow students won an international case competition in Singapore that helped him land his current job.
Fellow HEC student Rachel Boissonneault also reinvented herself with an MBA. A former intensive care nurse at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, she hoped the degree would lead to a job in hospital management. When nothing immediately materialized after graduation, she moved into health sector consulting and now works for Deloitte & Touche.
Mr. Gupta and Ms. Boissonneault also earned a return on investment that no MBA program can guarantee. They met as classmates and married this year.