Comparing an MBA to a Management Certification

Getting the biggest bang for your buck is critical to determining the value of additional accolades


Malhar Lakshman , Wed 13 July 2022
More and more senior leaders are pushing for increased credentials from their managerial staff. In 2020, 43% of US firms had business managers holding an MBA or some form of advanced business degree.  This is almost twice that of the percentage in 1980, which was 26%. 

Recently, companies and schools have been creating certification programs in lieu of these postgraduate programs. These include Cornell’s business strategy certification, Harvard’s Executive Education Certification program, and Ambition in Motion’s AIM Insights People Leadership Certification. How do you choose what type of education you want? How do you choose between an MBA and a people leadership program?

The costs of an MBA vs the costs of a Certification

It goes without saying that college is expensive. An MBA holds true to this statement. According to Experian, the average tuition cost of an MBA is $66,300. However, this is an average and falls victim to outliers. The online MBA program from the University of Texas Rio Valley is relatively inexpensive $17,000. However, the MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania costs $161,810. 

MBA Today lists that among the top 30 MBA programs, the cheapest one would be $55,727 for a full-time two-year program. This means that working will be much more difficult due to academic commitments. In addition to tuition and administrative fees, students need to pay for textbooks, supplies, any equipment (such as laptops, computers, electronics), and transportation. If you are required to relocate to study in this MBA program, you may also need to pay for moving costs and rent. Out-of-state students may even need to pay additional tuition.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 50% of graduate students take out student loans for an MBA program and complete their programs with an average of $74,707 in debt. 

 In contrast, a leadership certification program rarely leaves the 4-figure mark at all. According to CIO,  the costs of these programs range from $1800 to $5700, while the leadership coaching for executive training ranges between $150 an hour to $500 an hour. There are generally no textbooks or supply costs, and most definitely no moving costs. Certification programs have the capability to be held completely online. 

In addition to this is the cost of lost wages. During a full-time MBA, it is difficult to hold a job, and you will often have to teach a course at the school you are matriculating in. At the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, full-time MBA students are required to teach managerial and financial accounting courses to undergraduate students. This holds true for many other schools. 

Under a certification program, you can actually hold your position and continue work as normal, since it will allow you to practice skills that are taught in these courses. Therefore, you don’t lose any wages.

Applications

Applying to an MBA program is completely different than applying for a certification program. An MBA program has a much more comprehensive application process and runs the risk of applicant rejection. 

Most MBA programs require either a Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT for short, or a Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE. Some schools actually require scores for both examinations. Applicants are also required to provide letters of recommendation from managers, colleagues, and mentors, and potentially provide references as well. In addition to this, undergraduate grade point averages are taken into consideration. Finally, to complete the first stage of the application, applicants are then required to write a statement of intent, which is similar to an undergraduate college application essay. 

After all of this is completed, applicants then need to wait a few months, and may have the opportunity to be granted an interview. Most MBA programs require an interview before officially accepting a student. The acceptance rate for the interview stage ranges from 34% to 75% in the top 20 MBA programs. The averages end up being a 62% rate of acceptance.  After a long and grueling interview, you have between a 10% and 40% chance of being accepted. 

A certification program is much easier. Simply verify your identity, provide billing information, and register for the course. If there is an executive coaching portion to the program, your company may have to meet some performance metrics as well. 

Time Commitment

The average MBA program takes about two years to fully complete, assuming that it is a full-time program. Online MBAs or Hybrid MBA programs can take a while longer. During this time, expect a majority of your day to be occupied by classes, homework, research, as well as any other responsibilities required by your programs, such as being a Teaching Assistant or an exam proctor. 

People leader certifications are more fluid. Since you can view most of the coursework asynchronously, or entirely online, you determine how long the program will take. If there are executive coaching or mentorship programs in your certification, you may have to give up an hour per month or a period of time similar to this.  

The Curriculum of an MBA vs the Curriculum of a Certification Program

Courses for an MBA are often very generalized, with a skill set focused on financial management and structural management.  Some of the courses include the following:

1)      Business Essentials
2)      Exploring Business Strategies
3)      Marketing for the 21st Century
4)      Business and Law
5)      Management Analytics
6)      Management Accounting
 
           These are all important topics and can definitely add value to a company if a manager executes them correctly. However, an MBA doesn’t necessarily help with soft skills and isn’t marketable in all scenarios. If you want practical and applied skills, an MBA isn’t for you.  For example, if you are working as a manager in a field outside of finance, such as in a scientific field, or engineering, it would be best to either get a leadership certification or a degree more relevant to that workplace.
            
            A people leadership certification utilizes soft skills and is much more specialized than an MBA. Examples of topics covered in a certification course include the following:
 
1)      Personal Leadership
2)      Intercultural Leadership
3)      Service Leadership
4)      Strategic Planning
5)      Conflict Negotiation and Resolution
6)      Organization
 
            These topics are frequently discussed and encountered in the workplace and are important points to address with your direct reports, peers, and superiors. 

Conclusion

            Without a doubt, an MBA can be a very powerful tool, and in the right hands, can dramatically improve a company. However, with all of the expenses and rigor in mind, along with the focus, it is also best to consider if a people leadership certification might be a better fit for you. Neither is worse than the other, but some may be better in certain scenarios. Evaluate yourself, and your ambitions. 


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