The “Arms Race” to Get An Elite MBA

by Greg Spielberg on

Shelly Kagan, an ethics professor at Yale University, doesn’t see a problem with admissions consulting. “Remember Chariots of Fire?” the story about two British runners, he asks. Harold Abrahams seeks help from a personal coach, an idea that went against the cultural rules of sport and competition. In 1919, the move was unsportsmanlike. Now, of course, the average athlete has a personal attaché of specialized personnel, and the idea of a coach is quaint. “What strikes us as distasteful is largely a matter of how much of it has been going on,” Kagan says.

As far as admissions consulting, there’s a lot going on. Insiders estimate that 25% to a third of all applicants to the top ten business schools use consultants. For international applicants, it could be as high as 50%. That’s a distinct advantage for students who can afford hourly fees of up to $900. To Kagan, that’s just a part of capitalism in America, where wealthier people can attend better schools and accept low-paying summer internships to make themselves more attractive candidates. Why attach a stigma to B-school consulting when high school students seek help, and college and universities provide their own students with guidance counselors, he asks.

“It’s no more illegitimate for Student A to get [paid] advice than Student B who’s at a school that provides it,” he says, noting that Yale helps out students applying to Rhodes and Marshall scholarships all the time.

Kagan does wonder, though, what the cozy relationship between consultants and admissions officers might lead to. “Access and accommodations come in a million forms,” he says. Friendships, he adds, have natural, unconscious effects on decision making. Studies show doctors prescribe more drugs for companies who dine and entertain them. There’s also the issue of school officers who recommend loans from companies in order to secure kick backs.

THE APPEARANCE OF A CONFLICT-OF-INTEREST.

In 2008, Inside Higher Ed reported that Wharton’s associate director of admissions Judith Hodara and Kenan-Flagler dean of admissions Sherry Wallace were on the board of a Japanese admissions consultancy while holding their official admissions jobs at the schools. Agos Japan is a highly-touted firm frequently used by Japanese corporations sending employees abroad to grad school. Hodara’s involvement was pre-approved by the University of Pennsylvania, and Agos sent her a list of clients applying to Wharton so that Hodara could recluse herself from those applicants, she said in the article. Shockingly, Kenan-Flagler deemed Wallace’s relationship to be okay, and she stayed on the board until Agos dissolved the relationship with admissions officers. Tadashi Yokoyama, Agos’ chairman of the board, says in an e-mail the “relationship “received attention in a way that we felt was not beneficial to all involved.”

Hodara also had also been running IvyStone Educational Consultants, a firm for undergrad applicants, since 2004, and was a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Wharton asked her to resign from Agos due to what it said was the “appearance of a conflict-of-interest,” and Hodara shut down IvyStone after her board position came to light. Hodara, who now runs her own admissions consulting business based in Atlanta, could not be reached for comment.

Kagan thinks MBA consulting has become something of a two-way arms race. Students are better equipped to get into a top program with the help of a consultant, and schools can more easily access top applicants with the help of consultants. On the other hand, not having a connection to someone who can offer you the inside skinny on how to get into an elite school is becoming a disadvantage. “That’s the nature of arms races,” says Kagan. “At the end of it, no one is better off except the arms dealer.”

Return to main story: “Suddenly Cozy: MBA Admissions Consultants and Business Schools”

Partner Sites: C-Change Media | Poets & Quants for Execs | Tipping the Scales