One of the first things you'll find about an MBA is that it's not cheap. But help is at hand, reports Amy McLellan

A quick look at the price tag on a typical MBA reveals why it's such a major investment: the one-year full-time MBA at Imperial College, London's Tanaka Business School costs £23,000, at Cranfield it comes in at £26,500 and at INSEAD in France it's £31,000. The two-year full-time programme at IESE in Barcelona is £42,000 and at Tuck Business School in the US, over £43,000. Executive MBAs are even more expensive: £33,000 at Cranfield and £53,800 at Chicago Business School's new London campus. To this full-time students must add the cost of living and loss of income.

MBA graduates do attract a premium, and most display a healthy nonchalance towards the debt they have to carry. According to the Association of MBAs (AMBA) latest salary survey, graduates can expect a salary uplift of 18 per cent on graduation, though it is worth noting that this is down from almost 40 per cent since the previous survey, although the immediate salary uplift is shrinking from almost 40 per cent a few years ago. Career development loans are widely available: AMBA offers a competitively priced scheme through NatWest.

Tanaka Business School has taken an innovative approach to student finance. Its Graduate Assistantship (GA) reduces fees by £5,000 in return for up to 10 hours of work per week. "It's not just doing some filing, it's real work and gives you an opportunity to gain experience in another field," says MBA student Shelley Sylvester, who drew up an international plan for Tanaka's media department on her GA placement. "The MBA was totally self-funded, so the assistantship made a huge difference."

Many employers are prepared to help with the costs of an MBA. According to AMBA, 50 per cent of MBA graduates had all their course fees paid by their employers last year. Rob Haslehurst has just started at Tuck Business School in New Hampshire backed by a £1,000 a month contribution from his former employer, which converts into an interest-free loan should he not return to the firm on graduation. If he does rejoin the company, he'll owe them nothing. "It's a really useful amount and it's enough of an incentive to go back without piling on too much pressure," says Rob, who has also won a scholarship from Tuck to cover his second year fees.

Would-be MBA students should investigate scholarship opportunities. Business schools operate in a fiercely competitive global market and are prepared to pay to attract a high-flying and diverse student cohort. Women, still woefully under-represented on MBA programmes, can tap into a range of funding options designed to even up the male/female ratio. Consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the Forte Foundation sponsor highflying women. Cass and INSEAD are among the business schools with female-friendly funding pots.

International students are also well catered for. Durham's Ruth First Scholarships target students from South Africa while INSEAD has launched a €2.5 million scholarship fund for students from developing countries.

Scholarships are also available to attract applicants from outside the corporate world. British farmers can apply for a full scholarship at Cranfield (through the John Beckett Trust). Those in the charity and not-for-profit sectors are eligible for assistance at many institutions, including Cranfield, Ashridge and INSEAD. There are also scholarships to encourage MBA take-up within particular professions, including engineering and the armed forces.

Many business schools will match students to scholarships on application but a little leg work can go a long way. Les Graham, MBA programme director at Durham Business School, says too many students miss out on potentially valuable funding opportunities. "This year we offered a number of scholarships and it was a real frustration that not all were awarded," he says. "It's a shame, but the calibre of students wasn't there."

Genevieve Mannion from the admissions department at IESE Business School backs this. "American students tend to be a bit more clued-up but we need to educate European students about what's available."

For scholarships, apply early. "Think deeply about the attributes they're looking for and be very explicit about how you meet their requirements," says Les Graham. "Try to use some kind of metrics to demonstrate a proven track record and leadership ability."

Claire Lavers, 37: 'The scholarship is a fantastic financial opportunity'

Claire, a sports performance manager with the British Paralympic Association, has won a scholarship for an Executive MBA at Cass Business School in London

I'd been thinking about doing an MBA for a long time. I knew it would be really helpful if I wanted to move up, particularly because more and more people are coming into sports management from the business world with MBA qualifications. I work for a charity organisation so it doesn't really have the funds for this kind of professional development and I don't have the salary to pay for it myself.

The scholarship will cover half of my tuition fees so it's made doing an MBA a viable option. It was really opportunistic because I saw the scholarship advertised in a newspaper and just went for it. I had to write an essay and from that I was short-listed. I'd advise people to think carefully because you shouldn't go anywhere just because of the funding. Cass is also highly ranked and the programme is academically robust.

The scholarship is a fantastic financial opportunity but an MBA is a big commitment: the Executive MBA takes two evenings a week, which with personal study adds up to 19 hours a week on top of a full-time job. So while scholarships do bear some weight, it's important to make sure the programme is right for you.