Published: Nov. 4, 2022

From Business at Leeds 2022 | Full issue

Financial aid plays a crucial role for aspiring leaders seeking a Leeds MBA. 

Forget how she found the money. When it came to her MBA, how did Shay Cardenas find the time? 

Shay Cardenas in professional attire, against a blue backdrop.But the financials are important, too. When Cardenas enrolled, she was still paying off student loans from her undergraduate work at CU Denver, “and I was pretty much living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “The idea of quitting my job and going back to school was scary.” 

Consider: Cardenas (MBA’22) enrolled in the full-time program, but was actually working part-time for six months after a successful internship in Ford’s human resources division. She’s a busy mom to three kids who required extra attention when the pandemic closed their schools. And she was highly involved in extracurriculars—most notably serving as co-president of Women in Business and president of external relations for the Net Impact Case Competition. 

“I stayed busy,” is how Cardenas, now an HR business associate for Ford, put it. 

Faces of Leeds: Meet Shay Cardenas

Help, for Cardenas, came in the form of scholarships. While scholarships typically are associated with undergraduate programs, more supporters are stepping up as they realize the role aid plays in ensuring the best students enroll.

For Anne Dupont (MBA’78), supporting grad students is a way to pay back her own experiences at Leeds. 

Improving diversity in grad programs

“I want more students to be able to take advantage of what CU offers,” said Dupont, whose MBA helped her rise to senior leadership roles at Accenture during more than 20 years with the company. “And I want to continue Leeds’ efforts, in terms of having a more diverse student body in its graduate programs. When you have differences in thoughts, opinions, ethnicities, lifestyles, whatever it may be, it adds to the richness of the experience and the richness of thought.”

It’s something she helped trailblaze as a female consultant in the professional services world of the late 1970s. She helped lead Accenture’s Women’s Initiative in Denver and, as a member of the Leeds Advisory Board, has made mentorship of graduate students a priority. 

Gold bar section divider

“Companies talk a lot about wanting more diversity in the C-suite. You do that through programs like the MBA.”

Kristi Ryujin, associate dean for graduate programs and special assistant to the dean for faculty DEI

“I have been so incredibly impressed with our graduate students—how they think, their risk-taking ability, their boldness, their confidence—and those are things an MBA can give you,” she said. 

Cardenas certainly fits that mold. She saw the MBA as her ticket to greater challenges and more fulfilling opportunities. 

“Making the decision to go to grad school and forgo income is a hurdle for a lot of people in my position, but I always looked at this as investment in myself,” she said, adding that for the first time, she’s making more money than she owes in loans. “Without this degree and the support I got from Leeds, there’s no way I would have been able to get this job at Ford.” 

Rethinking aid

That kind of success story is why Kristi Ryujin, associate dean for graduate programs and special assistant to the dean for faculty diversity, equity and inclusion, is keen to rethink how graduate scholarships are awarded. 

For an undergraduate, need-based aid is determined by family income, “but for a graduate program—even if you’re a 22-year-old straight out of undergraduate—you’re seen as an independent,” Ryujin said. “As a result, everyone looks like they have similar need, regardless of your family’s ability to contribute financially to your graduate degree.”

Ryujin is working to add factors like current debt load to Leeds’ formula for awarding aid, along with considerations like first-generation status and undergraduate Pell eligibility: “If you already have $50,000 in undergraduate debt, how do you manage to make grad school work?” she said. 

And finding ways to help underrepresented or first-generation students get their graduate degree has practical value for businesses, too. 

“Companies talk a lot about wanting more diversity in the C-suite,” Ryujin said. “You do that through programs like the MBA. For diversity to be reflected in the C-suite, we must ensure that graduate education is affordable for all talented students—or we’ll never see the changes at the top that we’re talking about.”

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MBA Meets ROI

A 2021 analysis by Poets&Quants, a leader in business school reporting and rankings, found MBA graduates from the top 50 business schools in the U.S. will earn a median compensation of $5.7 million after graduating and working for 35 years—a premium of $2.3 million over those with just an undergraduate degree. That doesn’t factor in other benefits, like stock-based compensation or retirement benefits.