How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

by John A. Byrne on

“For the most part,” says Liedtka, “they were things the faculty wouldn’t have thought about. When we presented the findings to the faculty, one professor said, ‘I think I learned more in the last hour about the lives of our students than I have in the past 20 years.’”

Some students, the team discovered, came to Darden thinking their MBA education was the continuation of their undergraduate years. Others arrived viewing the MBA experience as a continuation of their professional lives. “For those who thought it was a continuation of college, it was ‘bring out the keg,’ says Liedtka. The other students were expecting wine and cheese parties and intellectual discussions. Some of the most unhappy students had different expectations of the social experience than the reality when they got here. It was kind of mind-boggling to us.”

Most of the emotional low and high points occurred around recruiting and job search and the pressures and demands of the school’s social life. “It was surprising how little they talked about the curriculum in the class and how much they talked about what was happening outside the class,” says Carraway. “It dawned on us that we need to think of this as a program, not just a curriculum, and that’s where we can build in customization and flexibility.”

Student satisfaction, of course, is often a byproduct of expectations. So the expectations that students bring to a program and whether they are met by the school has a lot to do with overall satisfaction. “Some students walk in the door knowing what they want out of their MBA,” adds Liedtka. We put them into one of those traditional MBA career bins likely to go to McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Goldman, Morgan Stanley or Procter & Gamble and IBM. But there is a whole group of students who have no clue with what they want to do. So when they enter that same recruiting and job search system, it’s very discouraging to them. They thought that by picking Darden, they would get this personal advice. Within two weeks of their arrival, we’re asking them which of five different careers they want to pursue because we want to put them into that track.” The upshot: “We had to create a system that kept satisfication high for most, but also put in other processes for people who have fallen through the cracks.”

Another issue that came to light was that some students had difficulty balancing their work in class with the onslaught of recruiter presentations on campus. “We found that early in the first year, when many students are struggling with the workload, we hit them with recruiter briefings,” recalls Liedtka. “That was fine for the students who knew what they wanted out of the MBA because they could only go to the consulting briefings or the investment banking briefings and still had time to do the class work. But for the undecided students, they would try to go to every briefing and it was physically impossible to do that and still prepare for the next day’s classes. They were the truly overwhelmed ones.”

A “Happy Wanderer,” for example, experienced emotional lows applying to MBA programs, balancing class work with recruiter briefings and club activities, and then the realization that the second-year of an intense MBA program won’t allow you to cruise to the finish line (see graph of emotional high and lows on next page). As one Darden student blogging under “Plan MBA” recently explained in a post: “I collapsed exhausted in bed each night not sure how I’d find the energy to get through the next jam-packed day. Where was the leisure of second year? Why couldn’t I stay afloat? And then I found out many of my classmates were feeling the same way. Over worked, more stressed than expected and confused about why the Promise of Second Year hadn’t materialized. It was more like the Myth of the Second Year.”

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  • John A. Byrne


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Best, John

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