One of the young men, we will call him Bob, that I have been advising on his career asked me an interesting question about advanced degrees or certifications.  Bob recently received a M.B.A. from a good school in Ohio. Bob is currently employed with a small, private firm as a combined Office Manager and Controller.  In trying to change jobs and upgrade his position and pay, Bob was finding that the M.B.A. alone was not providing him with much of an edge. So his question was, what about working on a CPA (certified public accountant) or a CMA (certified management accountant). Although his question was rather specific, it reminded me of the countless times I have been asked about advanced degrees or certifications by young business people.

About the same time this occurred, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about how prospective M.B.A.s are unhappy with the “strings-attached tuition reimbursement” that many organizations require. The article describes how young people do not always want to remain with their employer for several years to qualify for the full cost reimbursement of these programs. At many of the top prestigious schools, a regular M.B.A. costs $100,000 and an Executive M.B.A. can now run to $175,000. That is a lot of money! Especially to pay on your own with no help from your employer.

So, as a seasoned (read old) recruiter and mentor to many young financial people, what are my thoughts on all this?

First, an M.B.A. for most young people, who want to advance in business today, is a must. An M.B.A. to this generation is like a Bachelors degree was 25 years ago. If you can qualify and afford to attend a top school, either with your own resources or your employer’s help, do it. But for most young people the M.B.A. title is more important than the school. For example, in Chicago, for full-time programs,  you can spend $110,000 at Northwestern or the University of Chicago or you can spend about half that at DePaul University or the University of Illinois. And even less at many other area schools. The prestigious school may help you move faster in your career initially, but twenty years down the road, the key will be that you have an M.B.A.

The  CPA certificate is great and is required if you intend to work in auditing or tax for a long time. Also a CPA is very good for a public company Controller position, dealing with the SEC and accounting rules. In most of general industry, however, the CPA sounds good but doesn’t really bring much to most jobs. If you would like a shot at a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) role someday, I believe a CPA does have value and practical use as well. As a CFO/CPA, I never felt totally lost even in very technical conversations with my Controller or our outside CPA firm.

The CMA is a newer certification and is viewed by most recruiters and Human Resources people as below a CPA, but still a major accomplishment. For most financial people working in industry, the CMA is a good alternative to consider.

In conclusion, all advanced degrees like the M.B.A. and certifications like the CPA or CMA certificates are good for your resume and can, in many cases, actually help you on the job. But, again, for young people in business, your best bet is to get an M.B.A. from somewhere that fits into your budget and life plan not from the highest ranking (and expensive) school you could attend.

Good luck in your continued education!