“Matt: I am pleased to report that I’ve been accepted into the Wharton School’s Executive MBA Program.  Should I decide to enroll, however, I’ll be on the hook for $160,000!  Do you think this would be a wise investment, especially in this economy?”

First of all, good for you!!!  Regardless of whether you move forward or not, you should give yourself a hearty pat on the back for getting accepted into one of the most competitive business schools in the country.  Wharton’s EMBA program was recently ranked #2 in the country by the Wall Street Journal, beating out every other program aside from the one offered by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

Acceptance aside, however, the question of whether this program would be a good investment for you is a tricky one.  For starters, it’s extremely difficult to value the direct financial benefits one stands to receive from obtaining an advanced degree, especially an MBA, which is a much more “generalized” credential than other Masters-level qualifications one could pursue such as a Masters in Teaching or a Masters in Public Health.  And for those of us to whom $160K would be a princely sum (that would be most of us, I’d assume!) I think it’s smart to do some serious pre-acceptance analysis, rather than get swept into the program on a current of emotions.  If nothing else, it will help you rationalize your decision, after the fact, each time you’re writing that hefty tuition check…

So how would I go about determining the ROI of this educational investment?  Typically, whenever I’m faced with these kinds of questions, I follow a two-pronged strategy.  I first conduct a sweep of “secondary research” and see what useful resources I can find on the Internet at large.  In this case, a quick Google search on “the value of an MBA” turned up a number of useful links.  For example, I discovered that Forbes magazine has a handy “Business School ROI Calculator” available here that purports to be able to directly calculate the break-even point of an MBA investment.  To turn up statistics for Wharton, however, you’ll need to search using the word “Pennsylvania” and you should note also that these figures are for standard MBA degrees, not Executive ones.  There is a link on the left side offering some more information about EMBA programs, though.

Additional web-based resources that looked relevant to your query include a bullish article on the value of an MBA degrees here, a cautionary article on the same topic here, and a theoretically “neutral” article from Monster.com here that cites some specific statistics about what MBA grads earn compare to non-MBA grads.  So long story short, anybody about to make a $160,000 investment should probably surf through all of these divergent opinions, first, to get a detailed sense of the pro-and-con arguments that exist out there.  You might also e-mail a top salary survey site like Payscale.com, too, asking them whether they have any way of isolating the value of an Executive MBA from the millions of bytes of real-time salary data they track.

After this first wave of web-based research is completed, I’d then shift gears and engage in some primary research — which involves direct conversations with people who have obtained these degrees in the past.  The Wharton Alumni Club of Seattle would be a great place to start, and additionally, I’d recommend you jump on LinkedIn.com’s “People” page and run a search for Wharton in the School field, while simultaneously including the phrase “Executive MBA”  OR EMBA in the Keywords field.  When I tried this search in my own network, 281 distinct names came up — more than enough to get a tremendous cross-section advice on the value of this particular degree!  You could also post a relevant question to LinkedIn’s “Answers” page and see what kinds of responses you get.  I’m sure there would be plenty of people willing to chime in on the subject…

Ultimately, of course, it’s unrealistic to expect that there will be one “right” answer or that everybody will consistently praise or pan the value of the degree you’re considering.  Hopefully, however, you’ll see a strong leaning one way or another — or will find some individuals in a very similar situation to your own (in terms of job title, industry, etc.) and whose input might therefore be more valid than that of other people, facing different scenarios.

As for my own opinion, for what it’s worth, I’ll admit that I haven’t seen much of a direct correlation between the pay a candidate receives and whether they have an MBA or not.  I don’t think one magically starts making $20-30K more per year, in other words, by simply adding these four letters to their resume.  I do believe, however, that there is tremendous value in the network one is able to build through a first-rate MBA or EMBA program — especially through a top school like Wharton — and that it’s also hard to argue with the benefits of being able to discuss cutting-edge concepts with some of the brightest minds in the business world.  Money aside, this is a major life accomplishment that nobody would ever be able to take away from you!