Carolina Rey Díaz, a Colombian, came to business school in the Netherlands to learn to structure and finance development projects that could improve quality of life in the emerging market, where although economic growth is stable, more than three in 10 people still live in poverty.
“My intention is to relocate to a developed economy, learn about project preparation, execution and financing, and bring the skills and knowledge learnt to Colombia,” she says.
That is not unusual: a growing number of MBA candidates want to use their business acumen to make a positive impact on society or the environment.
But what makes Díaz stand out is her age: she’s 38, with 14 years of experience in the financial sector. She has just started her full-time course at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), where the average MBA student is 30. But she is far from an isolated example of an older MBA candidate.
The average age of students on MBAs ranked by the Financial Times, 28, has remained unchanged for much of the past two decades. But business schools do report anecdotal evidence that more older students are studying for MBAs.
Brandon Kirby, director of MBA marketing and admissions at RSM, says that the average age for the past few years has held steady. However, he says the range of ages is different. “We are seeing more younger and older candidates, which while it keeps the average the same, certainly effects class composition. This past admissions cycle we have received more applications from older candidates than in previous years.”
There are a number of reasons why older candidates would want to come back to business school.
As we live and work longer, and employment becomes more insecure because of automation, it makes sense for older professionals to seek further education, says Kirby. “It’s impossible to say what we learn in our undergraduate or graduate schooling is sufficient for our entire career,” he says.
“Technology is affecting the workplace now more than ever. In order for someone to stay up-to-date and competitive, they must continue to learn and train, no matter their age.”
Díaz says the MBA is less about developing an entirely new skillset, but refreshing and refining so-called “soft skills” such as communication. “I have [acquired] knowledge and skills through real life, but situations and people got more complex [in my job] and I needed to develop some specific soft skills to deal with that.”
At the same time, switching careers into a new industry, function or country is becoming increasingly common. Current data suggest the average worker will make five to seven career switches in a lifetime.
Even if they don’t change careers, interacting and engaging with a younger generation on an MBA can help older candidates work better with them, and see things in new ways, says Kirby. After all, on MBAs you learn as much from your peers as you do the professors.
Most business schools have a career development center that could help older candidates identify their selling points, work on interview techniques and how to position their experience as a positive thing for a potential employer, says Kirby.
Ageism: a reality for many workers
Although age discrimination is illegal in many countries, research by Anglia Ruskin University found older workers were 4.2 times less likely to be picked for job interviews than 28-year-olds, and in a separate study many employees over 50 cited fewer training and progression opportunities with their current employer.
Older workers are often perceived as costlier than their younger counterparts, and it is thought their careers have already peaked.
Could more experienced candidates face discrimination in MBA admissions, too? Consultant Stacy Blackman says admissions officers are less concerned about chronological age than they are about leadership experience.
Applying for an MBA in your mid-30s or above could suggest that you lack such experience. “Proving that you are a strong and accomplished 40-year-old leader, and balancing that with the fact that you want to improve in order to get to the next step, is tough to pull off,” says Blackman.
With that said, business schools value older MBA students for the considerable experience they bring to the program, on which peer learning is crucial. “We expect candidates to have had some significant achievements in their careers already that they can share,” says Anna Farrus, MBA recruitment and admissions director at IMD Business School in Switzerland.
But she adds: “We value all our students the same, regardless of their age.”
The average age of IMD MBA students is 31, with the figure unchanged for the past decade. But the range of ages is wide, with the youngest participant 26 and the oldest 37. “I see education and development as a life-long journey,” says Farrus. “We should never stop learning and improving our skills, regardless of what our career path is.
“It is just natural that, as we all live longer, we approach our personal and professional development as a continuous process, and not as just something that we are done with in our mid 20s.”
Employers who share this view may be encouraged to sponsor older workers through MBAs and reap benefits in doing so. For instance, diverse companies, those open to workers of all ages and backgrounds, are 45 percent more likely to report growth in market share, according to a study in Harvard Business Review.
Despite the prevalence of ageism at work, change is already underway. Companies such as Barclays, Boots, Aviva and the Co-op have all pledged to boost the number of over-50s in their workforce by 12 percent by 2022, for example.
An MBA could be a way to retain experienced professionals, as it can provide a significant career boost. The Graduate Management Admission Council calculates that those with an MBA or other advanced business degree earn between $500,000-$1m more over 20 years than those who don’t have such qualifications.
Downsides to doing an MBA as an older candidate
But there are downsides to doing an MBA as an older candidate. The opportunity cost is high, as they usually have larger salaries than younger students, which they have to sacrifice for up to two years to do a full-time MBA, says Blackman.
And older candidates may question whether the younger peer group on full-time MBAs will be as enriching to their learning as their own colleagues, she says. For that reason, she advises older candidates to consider getting an executive MBA (EMBA) instead, which is designed for more experienced professionals and can be completed on a part-time basis.
Back at RSM, Díaz points out the historically high return on investment (ROI) the school’s graduates have: the average salary of the 2017 graduating MBA cohort was more than $80,000, compared with current tuition fees of €52,000 ($59,500). “The school provides huge support in your search for a job,” she adds.
For her, and a growing number of MBA candidates, it seems age really is just a number.