In A Program Overhaul, Wharton Offers MBAs Free Life-Long Learning

In a new overhaul of its MBA program, The Wharton School said it will begin offering its MBA graduates tuition-free, on-going executive education once every seven years over the course of their careers. It’s the first time a major business school has agreed to give its MBAs free life-long education.

After what it said was a multi-year study, the faculty voted on Friday (Dec. 3) by an overwhelming majority to approve a new MBA program architecture emphasizing flexibility for students, academic rigor, and continuous innovation of content development. Among other things, the new curriculum will offer students greater customization of their MBA education based on their earlier education and work experience.

Wharton said that the new MBA program is the result of interviews with “thousands of Wharton’s stakeholders,” including students, alumni, business leaders, recruiters, faculty, and staff. An eight-person faculty committee, chaired by negotiations professor Richard Shell, worked on the details of the overhaul for the previous 18 months. The school plans a partial rollout of the changes in 2011 with full implementation in 2012.

The news does not come as a surprise. In a wide-ranging interview with Poets&Quants in September, Dean Tom S. Robertson announced the upcoming overhaul. “There has to be more of a focus on managing under ambiguity and the importance of ethical behavior,” Dean Robertson said then. The overhaul will be informed by what he called his three pillars, having to do with driving innovation, making the school more international, and cultivating a culture that is a force for good. “If I am going to have a legacy here, it’s going to be around those three pillars. They are a major part of differentiation for Wharton.”


Robertson, who became dean in 2007, announced the detailed changes in a news release. “The architecture of the curriculum addresses the needs of a new global generation through flexibility, rigor and innovation,” he said in the statement. “Our research shows that this generation of business leaders wants greater control over educational choices, continued exposure to peers with deep, global experience and more opportunity in their academic experience to self-analyze and self-reflect. As part of the design, we are introducing a series of global modular courses that will be offered in eight countries this year.”

At Wharton and most schools, there has been ongoing tweaking of the curriculum over the years. But the last significant overhaul of Wharton’s MBA program occurred in 1993-94 when then Dean Thomas Gerrity engineered a transformation that catapulted the school to first place in rankings by both BusinessWeek and The Financial Times. Wharton lost its number one ranking at BusinessWeek in 2000 and is currently ranked third behind Chicago and Harvard. The school also lost its number one ranking in The Financial Times this year to London Business School after being tied for first with London in 2009. Poets&Quants currently ranks Wharton fourth behind Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago.

Applications for the Wharton MBA class that entered this past fall also plummeted by 9% to 6,819, while applications at Harvard Business School for the same class were up 5%. More importantly, perhaps, applications to Chicago’s Booth School of Business, a school more directly competitive with Wharton due to its finance focus, increased 10%–a swing of 19 percentage points in applications between two key B-school rivals in a single year.

In its previous program overhaul, Wharton put more emphasis on “people skills,” creativity, and innovation. The school also added greater global perspective and integration to the mainstream coursework.

Since then, many business schools, from traditional elite players such as Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (see in-depth profile) and Columbia to newcomers such as Johns Hopkins University Carey School of Business, have put into effect dramatic if not revolutionary changes in how they produce MBAs. Stanford, whose program was unveiled in the fall of 2007, put more critical thinking, leadership development, global content and a required international experience into its MBA. It also gave students more flexibility in customizing their coursework to account for their ability level, offering core classes at several different levels of difficulty. The bottom line: while most business schools treat their students as a single, homogeneous class with a fairly rigid first year curriculum, Stanford now treats every student differently, tailoring the core courses to their individual needs.

Even more revolutionary, perhaps, has been the introduction of a new full-time MBA program at John Hopkins, one of the last elite U.S. universities without a full-time graduate business program. Hopkins, of course, had the advantage of designing a curriculum from a white sheet of paper. The school’s tagline, “Where business is taught with humanity in mind, is a deeply felt belief that informs a curriculum that emphasizes integrative, team-teaching in all the core courses, among many other changes.