Laura Chen is photographed in Decatur, Ga. on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Chen was recently accepted to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where she will pursue her MBA.
Merit award: Laura Chen has been offered $70,000 towards her MBA studies at Kellogg School of Management © Melissa Golden/FT

Scholarships have decisively overtaken savings, loans and employer support as the largest funding source for all graduate business degree courses. For many aspiring students, gaining access to an award — many of which are linked to developing a more diverse student intake — represents the difference between attending business school, or not.

The biggest source of intended funding among prospective students for full-time MBA programmes comes from grants, fellowships and scholarships, according to the exam administrator the Graduate Management Admission Council, and accounts for 30 per cent of the average financial mix. This is more than loans (24 per cent).

Kelsey Lents would not have gone to business school if it had not been for MBA scholarships. She worked as an associate at a New York architecture practice, having studied English as an undergraduate followed by a masters in architecture. Most people in her workplace came from design backgrounds and few had any formal business training. Ms Lents saw an opportunity to build valuable business skills, but without the $80,000 award offered by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, she could not have justified the estimated $170,000 cost of the two-year course.

“I was interested in studying business, but receiving a scholarship made it possible,” she says. The money provided her with both means to study and the financial freedom to try entrepreneurship after graduation.

Together with a co-founder she met in her MBA class, Ms Lents is preparing to launch a Washington DC-based combined co-working space and childcare service for new parents operating in the gig economy, called Hatch. The idea came to her after she had her first child midway through the MBA course and tried to fit her studies around motherhood. Hatch has itself won $30,000 from Georgetown University in a pitching competition.

Both the scholarship and this seed funding provide the freedom to pursue a dream, Ms Lents says. “I can be more focused on what I am passionate about rather than chasing a specific salary.”

Although business schools often claim that scholarships are about broadening access to less well-represented groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, money also flows to candidates who can help an institution maintain a strong academic record.

Justin Atwood received a $60,000 scholarship offer from Babson College in Massachusetts, covering 80 per cent of the MBA course fees. He attributes his success to a good score in the GMAT entrance exam, a good pass at undergraduate degree level — and his previous work experience in finance.

Mr Atwood had already saved hard for five years from relatively well-paid jobs, first as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley and then an associate at investment consultancy Cambridge Associates.

But the scholarship was a key part of his decision to return to full-time study. “I needed this extra money to have a roof over my head and food to eat,” he says.

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The most successful MBA applicants are often the most sophisticated and steadfast negotiators, according to Jessica Burlingame, a consultant at The MBA Exchange, an admissions adviser.

One of her clients, a student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, doubled an initial aid offer of $33,000 by going back to the school’s admissions and asking whether any other factors would have helped her chances. After she sent in further details of her situation, Duke made the revised offer.

Ms Burlingame warns that “timing is a wild card in the pursuit of merit-based aid,” noting that some schools send aid offers automatically with offers of places while others only make decisions about scholarships months after the course has been filled.

Another of Ms Burlingame’s clients successfully applied for a $17,500 merit award linked to her place on The Wharton School’s prestigious dual degree Lauder programme, which combines an MBA with a masters degree in international studies. Several months later, without having made any suggestion that the school increase her aid, the client received a letter offering her an additional $15,000.

If you do negotiate a higher scholarship level, success is never guaranteed — even if you have bargaining chips. Laura Chen received a $70,000 merit award offer from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, enough to cover half the fees for her two-year MBA.

She also received promises of financial aid from two other US schools, including one that would have covered all the course fees.

Buoyed by these offers, Ms Chen called Kellogg’s admissions office hoping to persuade it to increase the scholarship, but was turned down. “Increasing from $70,000 is much more difficult than from zero to something,” she says.

How to ask for more money

Maximising the scholarship award for an MBA place is a combination of good preparation, smart negotiation and an ability to present your case well, according to Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of Fortuna Admissions.

“It is important that your motivation come across as authentic, and that your request [does] not come across as too strident,” she says.

“It is best to put the request in writing, with as much detail as possible, and then follow up with a phone call about a week later if you have not received a reply.“

Getting your request in early is important. “Financial aid officers will have a fixed budget for a given class and have more flexibility to be generous earlier on in the application process,” Ms Diarte Edwards says.

Even if you don’t have another offer that you can use to get some leverage, it can still be worth asking if your chosen school can offer more, according to Ms Diarte Edwards.

“Candidates are sometimes hesitant to do this because they think it will somehow damage their standing with the school. It won’t.”

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