JD/MBAs: Who’s Crazy Enough To Get Both?

Tim Hsia photo

Tim Hsia, a former military officer, will graduate from Stanford with a JD/MBA in 2014.

This spring Tim Hsia, a former military officer, will accomplish something that precious few can ever brag about: The former military officer will graduate from one of the world’s top law and business schools simultaneously.

The JD/MBA candidate at Stanford University will complete a four-year intellectual boot camp that is among the toughest educational journeys a student can undertake. It’s also among the most expensive: JD/MBAs pay one year of law school tuition ($50,580), one year of first year MBA tuition ($59,550), and the “remaining quarters at the combined JD/MBA tuition rate”–which roughly translates into paying whichever tuition is higher that year.

Throw in living expenses, and the yearly cost for single students living on campus winds up being somewhere between $80,340 (the law school estimate) and $93,866 (the business school estimate). For the record, Hsia is married and has two kids.

The West Point grad signed up for the experience after confronting a less than welcoming job market when he left the military during the Great Recession. “I actually didn’t want to go back to school,” Hsia admits. “My thoughts were like, ‘Oh, you know, I don’t need an extra degree.’ But the more I went out and tried to find some jobs coming straight from the military, people were not interested in potentially hiring me.”

You wouldn’t expect someone who couldn’t find a fulfilling job to get into two of the most competitive professional schools in the world. But even for those who know law schools and business schools fairly well, JD/MBA programs can be full of surprises.

Derrick Bolton, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, notes that great JD/MBA applicants don’t always come from places like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. While companies like that might pass on applicants like Hsia, universities are in a better position to recognize their potential. “Schools have the luxury of being able to look more deeply at each applicant,” he says.

Bolton believes that whether applicants have excelled in the military, in an internship, or in a club—every year, there’s at least one JD/MBA who comes right from college—that excellence is transferable. “[Business and law schools] are professional schools, but they’re still schools,” Bolton explains plainly. “They’re still part of universities, so I think what enables you to succeed is that notion of intellectual curiosity.”

So far, that philosophy has worked. Bolton says that JD/MBAs are almost always at the top of their classes, and faculty members love them. It shows when he talks about Hsia. “In 20 or 30 years, he’s going to be running for President,” Bolton raves. “He’s going to be running for Senate or something.”

A program off the beaten path

GMAT Exams Taken by Potential JD/MBA ApplicantsTesting Year 2009Testing Year 2010Testing Year 2011Testing Year 2012
Non-US Citizens943805529629
US Citizens2454224118221735

Hsia had initially planned on law school alone, but while visiting Stanford’s campus, he spoke with a dual-degree student who changed his mind. “It was the pure luck of meeting another JD/MBA guy,” he says. That conversation sealed the deal; he applied to the Stanford Graduate School of Business within the first month of his 1L year.

The fact that a chance encounter led him to a JD/MBA is telling. Getting both degrees hardly qualifies as traveling down the beaten path. Nationally, JD/MBAs are few and far between. In the 2012 testing year, the GMAC found that only 2,364 people took the GMAT with the intention of pursuing a JD/MBA—down from 3,397 in 2009.

That number doesn’t even account for the people who didn’t go through with it. It’s one thing to consider the option, but actually enrolling in a JD/MBA program is a serious undertaking. First, the program usually takes three to four years to complete. Second, the price tag can be prohibitively high: Northwestern’s program, the largest in the country, costs $76,809 year in tuition. (At least it only lasts three years.)

Keegan Drake, Duke JD/MBA ’14, is the kind of person who can stomach that level of commitment. Asked how much debt he’ll be in by graduation, the University of Oklahoma alum laughed and said, “A good chunk.” Upwards of $50,000? “Oh, yeah.” To put things in perspective, in 2010, MBAs at Duke graduated with an average of $92,827 in debt. Drake, who’ll work as a corporate lawyer at Debevoise & Plimpton’s New York City headquarters after graduation, is not exactly cavalier about his student loans—but he’s definitely confident. “Maybe this is the mindset of the person applying for the JD/MBA, but just in general, I think things always kind of have a way of working out,” he says. “I just sort of always trusted myself and my ability to figure something out on the tail end of the program.” Not everyone is willing to take the plunge.

The size of the top JD/MBA programs varies widely. Northwestern has 27 JD/MBAs in the Class of 2016 and 70 of them on campus. Stanford has about 21 total, the biggest group since 1976. Penn’s JD/MBA count, with 14 in the Class of 2016 and 45 total, is slightly higher than Harvard’s, which is 10 in the newest class and 35 overall.

But at many schools—even elite schools—JD/MBAs are about as rare as unicorns. Drake says there are four other JD/MBAs in his year at Duke. An admissions representative at UC Berkeley says there might be one JD/MBA in this year’s incoming class, but she wasn’t sure; she estimates that the school gets about 20 JD/MBA applicants a year. Columbia doesn’t formally track the number, though the estimate there is slightly higher: 15 JD/MBAs in the Class of 2016.

Demand for the program has been curbed by what Bolton calls the “balkanization of educational interest.” Though the JD/MBA used to be the gold standard for people who wanted to work at the intersection of the public and private sectors, Bolton explains that growth in other joint degree programs—like Stanford’s MA Education/MBA, for example—has led some of those people down alternate paths. (It’s worth noting that at Stanford, the MA/MBA takes two years to complete. The JD/MBA takes four.)