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Why an MBA still trumps a master’s in finance in banking

A decade ago, an MBA was clearly the top qualification to have if you wanted to start down the path toward a high-level job in banking. Then quietly, more top business schools began offering an alternative: the cheaper, more technical master’s in finance degree. By 2015, hiring totals suggested that a master’s in finance may actually have trumped the MBA as the top qualification. However, new data shows that MBA programs may be having a renaissance of sorts, at least when it comes to compensation.

Comparing salary expectations for MBA holders versus those with a master’s in finance is a difficult task. While MBA programs usually require some previous professional experience, you can often enter a master’s in finance program directly from undergraduate studies. This means an MBA should demand a higher starting salary than a master’s degree, and in fact it does. But MBA holders are also now seeing greater increases in salary post-graduation than they did previously. The picture is more muddled for recent master’s of finance graduates.

The average degree holder at eight of the top 15 master’s in finance programs recently ranked by the FT reported lower annual salaries after three years of experience than those who graduated one year earlier. This only occurred with two of the top 15 global MBA programs – IESE Business School in Spain and the University of Cambridge, both of which ranked outside the top 10.

Meanwhile, graduates of every top 15 MBA program but one reported at least a 100% increase in salary from the time they entered the program to three years after earning their degree. Even graduates from IESE and Cambridge Judge saw their salaries more than double over that period. That’s a stark difference from just a few years earlier, when graduates of every top MBA program reported three-year salary increases that were lower percentage-wise than the previous year. The value of an MBA appears to be on the rise.

When it came to the Masters in Finance courses where students didn’t have prior professional experience, the FT compared the starting salaries directly following graduation to what degree holders were making after three years. Among top schools, graduates from first-ranked HEC Paris saw the biggest three-year salary bump of 82%. The master’s program at the U.K.’s Imperial College Business School fared the worst, with graduates only earning a 43% increase in pay over three years. Imperial College alumni from 2015 now earn an average of $92k, meaning their starting salary was around $65k after graduation. At HEC, it was around $75k.

For MBAs, sticking around pays

There are several possible explanations for the new narrative that top MBAs are still a good deal. A masters qualification is well-aligned with lucrative sales and trading jobs, fewer of which exist now than in years previous. And of course, not as many MBAs enter banking as often as in previous years; many now take jobs in tech and consulting, so pay could be rising due to scarcity value. But the data seems to reject the premise that other industries are out-paying finance professionals, particularly in the early years for those who went to top schools.

Business schools that are the chief feeders into finance – Stanford, Wharton, Booth, Harvard and Stern – all saw their graduates who remained in the industry take home bigger salaries than those who left or never entered finance in the first place. Graduates of all five with the exception of Stern earned salaries north of $200k if they stuck around for three years.

Banks are thirsty for masters candidates

Perhaps the best news for master’s of finance grads is that they are clearly in high demand. Over 95% of students from nine of the top 10 programs had a job within three months of graduation, with four schools sporting 100% employment rates. For top MBA programs, the highest employment rate was 95% (Booth), while several languished in the 80%-90% range.

If you have little or no experience, a master’s in finance appears a near-lock to find a decent job in the industry. But it still pays to have an MBA. You just need to land a job first and handle the culture of banking for more than a couple years.