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Insights from the Shark Tank: Why I Chose the Cheaper Graduate Program

This article is by Sam Rosenbaum, a Sales Development Manager at UXPin and Earnest client.

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times: “What was the hardest part of the grad school application process?”

For some it’s the dreaded standardized testing, for others the endless essay prompts or just trying not to sweat profusely during a heart-pounding admissions interview. For me, in May 2013 with four acceptance letters in hand, the part keeping me up at night was simply indecision.

I spent hours furiously poring over metrics and often found myself awake at 2 a.m. creating weighted spreadsheets of school rankings, coursework and alumni statistics, hoping an obvious answer would emerge at the bottom of an Excel tab. I was fighting a mental battle between the instant gratification of a more expensive international program versus the delayed gratification of a more financially responsible decision.

Weighing the Options

It’s a great problem to have four options, each so compelling that it feels impossible to choose. It was important to me to think about the long-term and not make an emotional decision, so I took to Excel to crunch the numbers as I envisioned my future in each place:

  • MSc Global Entrepreneurship, Purdue: This program included semesters studying business in France and China. As a 21-year old with wanderlust and aspirations of working overseas, this was the program of my dreams. But the dream program came with a nightmare price-tag.
    Total Estimated Cost: $65,000
  • MSc Entrepreneurship, University of Florida: I had Florida residency, so in-state tuition would cost a reasonable $22,000. The coursework and professors in the Hough Graduate School of Business were highly ranked, but this specific degree program was only a few years old and less established in official rankings.
    Total Estimated Cost: $30,000
  • MSc Social Entrepreneurship, Hult International Business School: The focus on social entrepreneurship was appealing, but tuition alone was $38,000 and I would have to budget for the high cost of living in San Francisco.
    Total Estimated Cost: $60,000
  • MSc Entrepreneurship, University of South Florida: A well-ranked program and the lowest cost option, at $21,000 in in-state tuition. But I’d read reports of students having difficulty getting into the necessary classes and delaying graduation, raising a major question-mark.
    Total Estimated Cost: $28,000

The Big Question

Ultimately, I wanted my career to involve global business, but did I need to spend an additional $35,000 to achieve that goal?

The weight of the decision was overbearing. The program you choose sets you down a certain path, with ripple effects of that decision impacting the rest of your life. It will affect where you live, who you meet, your career and of course, your financial future. To proceed with confidence, I needed a perspective beyond my own.

But not just any perspective would do. I find that it’s these moments in life when everyone you meet starts offering up their own unsolicited ‘two-cents’. My graduate degree would be a huge investment of time and money into my future potential; whom could I trust to ensure I would make the right choice to maximize my return on that investment?

“Advice is one thing that is freely given away, but watch that you take only what is worth having.”
George S. Clason, The Richest Man in Babylon

Finding My Answer

Laying in bed one morning I daydreamed of someday having a rolodex of ultra-successful entrepreneurs that would advise me. I imagined what Mark Cuban might say if I was pitching him in the Shark Tank. In an off-handed moment I took to Twitter and penned a request for advice to each shark personally:

Then, never expecting a response, I tossed my phone aside and went downstairs for breakfast.

An hour later, I had completely forgotten about my tweet when I casually clicked my phone and went into shock when I saw three replies from Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban all giving me their personal insights. Mentorship in 140 characters or less really put the situation into perspective.

More debt for more prestige? To these successful entrepreneurs looking at the choice from a distance, the answer was clear. It’s not ultimately a degree that matters, it’s how you put it into action and the experiences gained along the way.

Later that day I announced to my family I had finally chosen the University of Florida. Nearly five years later I can firmly say this is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I completed my Masters Degree in May 2014 with $23,100 in student loans, which I was able to pay in full by January 2017.

As for my international business dreams, Lori Greiner was right. It has all come from experience, and I sought out every opportunity. Since graduating I have been able to work with entrepreneurs all over the world, even living and working in South Africa. Currently I manage the inside sales team at a software company originally founded in Poland, where I get to work with design teams across the world every day.

With a bit of advice from the sharks, I saved $35,000 in tuition, still got an amazing business foundation and continue to learn by doing.

So what turned out to be the hardest part about the grad school application process?

For me it was trusting that success would not come from a fancy alma mater, but from entrepreneurial spirit and determined hustle.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.