Last Friday, Jack Cowett's 2½ years of job security came to an end. He couldn't be happier.

Unlike countless others who have been shown the door, Cowett made the move himself.

He's leaving his job as a senior account executive at Schwartz Communications in San Francisco to pursue an MBA at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business.

"Of course it's a little scary to walk away from a secure source of income," Cowett said. "But I also am happy with my decision because I'm excited to take the next step towards realizing my ultimate career aspirations."

At one time, this three-letter acronym for a Masters in Business Administration was the "sexy" on an applicant's resume.

But today the pursuit of a Masters of Business Administration degree is a much more calculated decision. With a price-tag for some that rivals a luxury car, the question revolving around an MBA is what kind of return on investment can the degree bring.

Some critics of MBA programs question whether the skill set being taught to students match the challenges of the business world today.

Columnist Stefan Stern wrote in the Financial Times recently that "Scapegoats are still being sought for the crisis in world markets. MBA graduates make a convenient target."

In light of corporate scandals and questionable activities, some schools are putting a much heavier emphasis on classes such as ethics and risk management.

At Berkeley recently, before the first class, one of the professors sent an e-mail to students asking to answer two questions: "Was AIG acting unethically when they paid the bonuses?," and "Was AIG acting illegally when they paid the bonus?"

Most of the students answered the first yes. And the second no.

"The professor showed them the data and asked them to realize how big of a space there was between ethical and legal," Lyons said. "Even if we toe that legal line, but don't cross it, you are going to destroy a lot of value and reputations."

Lyons believes that schools need to put a strong emphasis in making sure that the students they admit are there for the right reason. And not for a golden ticket.

"We are looking for confidence without attitude," he said. "We need to make sure that we build ethical leadership and that we make sure we get them to do the right thing."

In the Bay Area alone, there are more than two dozen MBA programs. And they are not all one-size fits all.

Scott Shrum, director of MBA admissions research at Veritas Prep, advises and prepares students for the process. He says that if a student goes into a graduate school without a plan and the right mindset, they could have a rude awakening.

"If you measure the value of an MBA as a ticket to a six-figure job, then a lot of those people might be disappointed when they graduate," Shrum said. "It's those that realize an MBA is a transformative experience and much more than the paycheck who is going to reap the benefits."

A popular choice for MBA programs now are those that offer flexible schedules or night programs. Therefore, those that have a job do not have to sacrifice one for the other.

Stacee Johnson-Williams graduated from DeVry University's Keller Graduate School of Management because when she looked around her colleagues at Gap Inc. where she worked in San Francisco, everybody had an MBA.

"For me, I realize it became a necessity if I ever wanted to be promoted to an executive," she said. "There were just some skill sets I needed to try and make it work, and I realized I needed an MBA to get those."

However, the trade-off for juggling a job and a degree is time.

"It was a challenging 2 years, because I was a four-sport athlete who would work out all the time, but suddenly I had no time," said Williams, a Fremont resident. "Everything I loved to do was literally put on hold.

Michael Cubbin, president of Bay Area Metro, which oversees Devry's Bay Area campuses, says that part-time programs have become more popular recently.

"An MBA gives people a deeper understanding of how the components of business works together and gives you the discipline of executing a business process," he said. "But realistically, the question in this economy is how many people are going to take a year off and get an MBA."

Cowett will be one of those people.

An admitted ski bum who's post-MBA dream is to be a marketing executive for a company such as REI, the North Face or K2, Cowett realized that doing a part-time program was an option, but he didn't want to dish out close to a $100,000 to pursue a degree and risk not getting the maximum experience.

"I believe a part-time or evening MBA makes a lot of sense for individuals who are planning to stay in their current industry after graduation," Cowett said. "But I also feel that a full-time program will provide me more opportunities to participate in consulting projects, case competitions and internships that more closely relate to my ultimate career aspirations."

The price tag difference between MBA programs can be vast. At Stanford, for example, tuition for just one 2009/2010 academic year is $51,321. The entire degree at Cal State East Bay in Hayward is less than $12,000.

Like a luxury car versus an economical one, with MBA's, the brand name itself plays a part in the cost. But for business schools, that brand name may be the key to attention from recruits upon graduation.

"In the end, the perception of employers of the school is very important, because that's where the rubber hits the road," said Dan Finnigan, current CEO of San Francisco-based Jobvite and former head of Yahoo! HotJobs, "That brand name might be the differentiator from getting the nod for a job or not."

Finnigan says in his recruitment experience that if there are four or five decent people that are a candidate for a job, the one with the best education gets the nod.

"I'm someone who strongly believes education is a good investment," he said. "Invest in yourself when the economy slows down so you are ready for the economic turnaround."

Shrum agrees that this is more the case when times are tough.

"In good times it matters less because there are more are more jobs to be had," Shrum said. "But in a down economy you need to be much choosier, because now companies tend to retreat to the schools they are familiar with and give them good talent."

However, the lesser-known schools shouldn't be entirely thrown aside in consideration. Some offer more flexible hours, online options, and niche affiliations such as the hotel and recreation industry.

Also, if a person doesn't really want to work for a big firm, and is a self-starter that just needs to learn how to read an income statement and pick up the business basics to be an entrepreneur, then there's no reason to spend a bunch of money on a branded school, Shrum said.

An MBA might have lost some of its flare, but it can still make a big difference on a resume.

"There's no question that right now, the brand and stock price of an MBA is a little bit down," said Richard Lyons, dean of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "But the MBA is here to stay, and now more than ever a business school has the responsibility of giving students something that will last and make a difference."

Staff writer David Morrill can be reached at 925-977-8534 or dmorrill@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Prospective students of MBA programs should select wisely. Here are some questions to ask and issues to consider, according to Scott Shrum of Veritas Prep, who advises and prepares students on the admissions process.
  • What employers recruit from the school? If you want to switch careers and get a job in banking, but no investment firms recruit at the school, then don't expect your post-MBA job search to be easy.
  • How far do the school's reputation and alumni network reach? Many schools provide an excellent education, but only have a regionally strong brand. If you want to get a new job in another part of the world after school, this may make it harder to do.
  • What type of programs does it offer? Most business schools offer a full-time, two-year program. If this may not fit your schedule or you don't want to quit your job, see if they offer part-time programs that allow you to work and study at the same time.
  • What are its academic specialties? Is the school strongest in one specialty, such as finance or marketing? Or is it a more general management-oriented program? Make sure this strength matches what you want to focus on in school.
  • How much will the school cost you? Obviously, half of the return on investment equation is the size of investment itself. If a school offers you a significant grant or your employer will cover the cost of the program, that may tip the scales in that school's favor.

    source: Scott Shrum, Veritas Prep

    Here's a list of some of local business schools offering MBA programs. Some of the schools headquartered out of state have programs in the Bay Area.

    Argosy University
    Web site: www.argosy.edu/sanfrancisco

    California State University, East Bay
    Web site: www.mba.csueastbay.edu

    DeVry University/Keller Graduate School of Management
    Web site: www.devry.edu/keller

    Dominican University of California
    Web site: www.ndnu.edu

    Golden Gate University/Edward S. Ageno School of Business
    Web site: www.ggu.edu

    Holy Names University
    Web site: www.hnu.edu

    John F. Kennedy University
    Web site: www.jfku.edu

    Lincoln University
    Web site: www.lincoln.uca.edu

    Mills College Graduate School of Business
    Web site: www.mills.edu/mba

    National University
    Web site: www.nu.edu

    Northwestern Polytechnic University
    Web site: www.npu.edu

    Notre Dame de Namur University
    Web site: www.ndnu.edu

    Presidio School of Management
    Web site: www.presidiomba.org

    Saint Mary's College of California
    Web site: www.smcmba.com

    Santa Clara University/Leavy School of Business
    Web site: www.scu.edu/business

    San Francisco State University
    Web site: www.mba.sfsu.edu

    San Jose State University/Lucas Graduate School of Business
    Web site: www.cob.sjsu.edu/graduate

    Stanford University
    Web site: www.gsb.stanford.edu

    University of California, Davis
    Web site: www.gsm.ucdavis.edu

    University of California/Haas School of Business
    Web site: www.haas.berkeley.edu

    University of Pennsylvania/Wharton Executive MBA Program
    www.wharton.upenn.edu

    University of Phoenix
    Web site: www.phoenix.edu

    University of San Francisco/Masagung Graduate School of Business
    Web site: www.usfca.edu/mba