How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

From the start, Bruner concluded that the greatest opportunity to enhance student satisfaction was not in a big overhaul of the curriculum, but in smaller incremental changes. “Big redesign efforts are well known and get a lot of press, but they are difficult to pull off and sustain,” he says. “All of the research on how the best organizations do innovation is through a process of small change–prototypes and projects.”

And Liedtka also felt that the greatest opportunities were not with the mainstream MBAs because by and large they were very satisfied with the Darden experience. Even going back to the very first student satisfaction survey in 1988, Darden students were more satisfied with the quality of teaching at the school than any other. The school also scored extremely well on most other satisfaction attributes measured by the survey. Even Darden’s 14th place finish in 2008 failed to show widespread disaffection. “You weren’t going to move the needle on the mainstream,” says Liedtka. “We had to find the most unhappy ones and then set expectations so they don’t come in the first place or tweak it so that is the key to helping the other group of students become more satisfied with their experience. We are constantly generalizing to the mean when it’s the outliers where a lot of fruitful innovation lives.”

Among the key goals of the project:

“Take faculty and staff on an empathic journey through the current student experience, supported with data.

“Provide a compelling description of unmet needs of current MBAs.

“Identify key opportunity areas of improvement.

“Find some easy wins.”

Darden brought in Tim Ogilvie, CEO of consultants Peer Insight, who taught an MBA class on service innovation. Nine students then were drafted to do the study on 16 second-year MBAs representing a cross-section of age, gender, nationality, marital status and educational backgrounds. After a couple of training workshops, the student researchers spent hours with their classmates, taking each through 11 key steps in the MBA journey. They started with the moment each decided to get an MBA until his or her graduation two years later. The interviews were done in the last quarter of their second year, between March and May of 2009, and reported to the faculty just before graduation in May.

What they found surprised Bruner, Liedtka and much of the Darden faculty. The school had long assumed that all of its students had the same experience going through the Darden program. After all, it was a lockstep, cohort driven program, heavy on case study teaching, close student-faculty contact, teamwork and collaboration. In fact, different types of students were having significantly different experiences that altered their highs and their lows.


The research team identified four different types, or personas, of students, each with his or her own issues (see matrix on next page). There were “Mainstream MBAs” who were using the degree to switch careers into typical MBA jobs; “Happy Wanderers,” who were using the degree to find a new direction in life; “Mature Ticket-Punchers,” who sought the MBA to enhance their career mobility, and finally “Map Makers,” the most likely group to be dissatisfied. Unlike the “Happy Wanderers,” they’re more likely to be angst ridden about not knowing what they will do when they enter the program. They’re still trying to make sense of their careers. Some of them go into social entrepreneurship after getting their MBAs. They’re also far more interested in the program’s intellectual content. “We have been so busy designing for the mainstream that we haven’t recognized this group existed in the past,” says Robert Carraway, senior associate dean for degree programs. “But we have some very talented folks in this group.”

  • Guggenheim,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Best, John

  • guggenheim

    To all,

    I am a complete, legit Darden Alum from the early ’90’s. Whew, way back then. Even in those old days the McKinseys, Goldman Sachs, top advertising agencies, P&Gs etc. recruited at Darden. Of course, Darden was ranked in the Top Ten of the US News and World Report lists long before so many like North Carolina, Yale et al played catch up. Georgetown, really? Which of course is the larger question, how and why did Darden slip at all?

    I am sure that most of you who are students, all of you who are real grads and a few of you who are candidates have heard this truth: The MBA experience as it relates to placement only holds currency during the first FEW years after graduation. Following that, and for most of people’s careers, recruiters and hiring managers will look at concrete professional, business accomplishments. Someone above said that accounting is the easiest course offered in business school. That person clearly has not been in the working world very long. Please don’t repeat that on a interview, it’s not true, especially to those who have NOT taken accounting and those will be most of the people for whom you interview and work.

    The MBA experience as it relates to your career is a different story. As a Darden grad, you will know so much more than many of your other B School peers, work colleagues and bosses. Don’t be so shortsighted as to not realize that. Also as time goes on, your degree from Darden will command respect and dollars as do the degrees earned from other major B-Schools.

    But hold on to your hats, especially you newbies , the MBA is often mentioned as a “preferred” credential, not a requirement as jobs move further upwards. I recently watched a 60 minutes episode about Tyra Banks the former model and media mogul pursuing an executive MBA at HBS. She has already built a pretty major media company of HER OWN BEFORE pursuing an MBA, only now that she has already has millions sans MBA she wants a better understanding of what those Wall Street folks are talking about as she looks to grow further for herself.

    So try to take a longer view. And average? There is nothing average about a Darden grad or a grad from any major, intensive MBA prgram. BTW, you should read up on the satisfaction surveys from grads of HBS. I’m not knocking HBS, it’s a great program in my view and I’m a Darden grad. But read what the people who went there say. It does not or will not rank with the student satisifaction achieved by Darden. It’s tough, but sometimes it really does help to start realisticaly looking further down the road.

  • James

    According to the satisfaction chart of the 4 personality types, I would assume that Darden is now less interested in the social enterprise types. Those students tend to be less satisfied than most, and therefore will rate the school lower.

  • Darden applicant


    I appreciate your candor, but to be quite honest with you, I’m having doubts that you are a real student. I find it hard to believe that you were admitted into Darden with a 660 GMAT, 3.2 GPA, and at the age of 21. What did you do before b-school?

  • Bob

    Oh, God, PLEASE, no more MBA programs and MBA’s!!! America doesn’t need any more MBA’s who screwed up its economy through Wall Street shenanigans or through Main Street, with their short-sighted mismanagements motivated purely by greed and even more greed. When too many of their subordinates still complain of their unfairness, unreasonableness, and dbias, it’s clear that they graduated from the MBA programs without adequately learning perhaps the most critical skill in management, which is PEOPLE skill. Or, perhaps the MBA programs graduate too many MBA’s who were not cut out to be decent, practicing managers. Apparently the MBA’s who were involved the Wall Street scams forgot or ignored what they learned from their requisite courses in business ethics at their MBA schools. Enron, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, AIG, GM, Chrysler, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mae were all MISmanaged by the managers who graduated from some of the top MBA programs in America. They decided to offshore many manufacturing and service jobs overseas, mostly to fatten their already grossly inflated salaries or compensations, all the while claiming that it was necessary for the competitiveness or survival of their companies. Lastly, America already has a HUGE glut of MBA’s, of whom some, if not many, are probably currently unemployed or under-employed, in this horrendous recession brought on by themselves or their peer MBA’s.

  • Plan MBA,

    Thanks for weighing on. Really enjoy your blog posts. Good luck to you!