When you evaluate programs, don't overemphasize the significance of the average starting salary figures reported by schools. Although grads of top-ranked schools report starting salaries higher than the national average -- sometimes far higher -- there are many factors that determine a salary offer, including prior earnings profile, pre-M.B.A. work experience, geographic location and cost of living, area of specialization, and even academic record in business school. And often an offer is for a total "compensation package" that may make it hard to compare one with another.
It's All Relative
M.B.A. graduates often do receive salaries significantly higher than those they had prior to starting the degree program, but this is usually relative to the base they had previously. It's far more likely that someone who previously earned $50,000 or $60,000 a year will graduate with a six-figure compensation package, than it is for the person who earned $25,000 per year before earning an M.B.A.
The astonomical compensation packages you sometimes read about -- topping $200,000 of late -- are generally given only to the top grads in the top 25 b-schools nationwide. This is a very small percentage of the over 90,000 students awarded M.B.A.s in recent years. And an estimated two thirds of M.B.A.s are awarded to part-time students, who plan to remain with their present company and are looking for a faster career track rather than a post-M.B.A. windfall.
Also bear in mind that some industries -- notably management consulting and investment banking -- pay at the high end of the salary spectrum. Schools that send a high percentage of their students into these fields will present salary statistics skewed upward by their graduates' reports.
The Long-Term View
Don't look only at the first jobs that a school's graduates take. Where they are five or ten years down the road? Did their program provide them with skills to manage their careers, or did it merely help them land that first job offer? Your career is more like a marathon than a sprint, so take the long view. A strong indicator of a school's strength is the accomplishments of its alumni.
If you enroll in a traditional two-year program, find out about summer job opportunities between your first and second year. A professional internship or summer job can also give you first-hand experience in a new industry or functional area that you can leverage when you graduate. Many summer jobs ultimately lead to full-time offers. A substantive summer experience will also make you a more attractive job candidate for prospective employers in the same area, if that's what you're planning.