A Wharton MBA On The Wall Street Journal Criticism

MBAOver30I want to put in my 2 cents on all the hoopla that has been stirred up by this article in the Wall Street Journal regarding Wharton’s application volume and the departure of its former admissions director,  Ankur Kumar. A day or so later, professor Adam Grant published this response; first on LinkedIn and then on The Huffington Post.

First, I think it is important to note that practically every 6 months to a year, some media outlet posts an article about how a top MBA program has “lost it” or “may be losing it” based on some data point that has dropped. It really is a part of a larger dialogue around the value of an MBA period. If you’ve seen any of these debates play out on LinkedIn or Bloomberg, they can get pretty heated. Interestingly enough, the people who seem to be the most upset about the issue tend to be those who don’t have one–and definitely not one from an elite institution.

A lot of this debate has gotten steam over the years in lieu of a flurry of Zuckerberg-like start up success stories of people who quit–or never attend–college and go on to build successful companies. What these stories leave out, however, is that such people are highly privileged and often well connected such that an MBA–or even a college degree–hardly presents them with any incremental growth in their network or exposure to opportunities. It’s as if people who either don’t want, don’t have a need or are at some level jealous of elite MBAs want to argue those of us who see value in these degrees down about why we should question that value; and attacks on individual schools–the more prestigious schools in particular–is the typical go to method for producing hot headlines that turn heads and go viral.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg posted an article about how HBS was supposedly “losing its luster” because its average salary for graduates had dropped a piddly $5k.  Last year there was another article about how top MBA programs across the board were seeing declining apps, yet were retaining the quality of their applicant pools. You would have thought the sky was falling with Columbia’s apps dropped 19% in one year. This year, they’re reportedly fine. They also reportedly retained high quality applicants during that slump. Go figure.

The thing is, it makes pretty good sense that of those who might have applied to a particular top school that decide not to that those with weaker profiles are more likely to drop first. I seriously doubt that the 3.7 Princeton undergrad with 4 years at McKinsey is the one saying “screw an MBA; who needs it.” It would also be sad if other schools further down the reputation list were salivating over such stories hoping that this now means that their school has a shot at toppling those at the very top. For starters, that isn’t really happening–at least not in any way that will sustain. All of the so-called super elite schools have been both up and down in the prestige rankings in general over the past 30 or 40 years. It goes in cycles; but they never move too far down and always rebound, just like the football programs at places like USC or Oklahoma.

It takes more than a couple of years of less than perfect data to topple decades of brand and network strength. What’s more is that its not even about that to begin with. This is really about a larger dialogue on the relevance and ROI of the MBA; and what better way to challenge that than to target any sign of imperfection seen at the top of the heap?

While data points such as the number of applications is not really up for debate, my personal experience at Wharton is much more commensurate with Adam Grant’s Huff Post article. Hardly anyone who actually goes to Wharton sees it as a finance school. Finance will always be a core strength of Wharton, but the school’s offering has long since diversified beyond that, which is evidenced by the decline in the percentage of graduates who go into finance and the increase in areas such as tech, healthcare, entrepreneurship and even analytics. Additionally, I always find it interesting how those on the outside (of any organization) looking in speak as if they have more insight on what is happening within an organization than those who exist in its ecosystem day in and day out. It doesn’t really make any sense.

Still, I do believe that Wharton’s administration may be sleeping on the job from a branding perspective. I don’t know, perhaps they should call Kellogg since branding is one of their core competencies. What I do know is that the administrations failure to properly brand the school has had little to no bearing on the quality of curriculum, faculty, students and especially the boundless opportunities that are available to anyone coming out of Wharton. Maybe their knowing that is what makes them so lax on the issue. If that is the case, I hope their attitudes change sooner or later…or that they are replaced by more passionate people with different attitudes. At the same time, I don’t really buy the WSJ’s assertion that the branding issue lies with companies that recruit; for instance, tech companies in particular are hiring Wharton grads in droves both into established companies and startups. Again, there is no shortage of plum opportunities here.

When I toured admit weekends, there was a clear distinction in the polish and pedigree of the Wharton students. I’ve literally thanked both Ankur Kumar and Tiffany Gooden for having chosen such a high quality group of individuals for me to get to be classmates with. And if you want to matriculate into the very best companies post MBA–both new school and old school–the fact remains that your opportunity to do so will be far greater here than just about anywhere else besides the usual suspects of HBS and Stanford. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to change.

Regarding the departure of Ankur Kumar, she’s actually a friend of mine and quite frankly I was wondering how long she was going to continue to commute from New York to Philly.  As far as the impetus for her resignation, I’m not privy to her business; but I will say that an admissions director’s job is to capture the largest possible pool of interested candidates and choose the best quality class from that pool. Their job is not to market the university as a whole or be the primary driver of interest. The people who I have the honor of being in class with each day are a testament to the great job that Ankur and her admission team have been doing at just that. The fact of the matter is that there are tons of amazing, highly qualified people who get turned away from Wharton and every other top school each year simply because there just aren’t enough slots to take them all. That is still a problem at Wharton and I doubt that it will cease to be one anytime soon.

MBAOver30 offers the perspective of a 30-something member of the Wharton MBA Class of 2015 and majors in Entrepreneurial Management and Marketing with an emphasis in Customer Data & Analytics. He blogs at MBAOver30.com. Previous posts on Poets&Quants:

How I Totally Overestimated The MBA Admissions Process
Musings on MBA Failophobia
Letting Go Of An MBA Safety School
When A Campus Visit Turns Off An MBA Applicant
Yale, Tuck and Booth: The Next Leg of My Pre- MBA Research
 My Countdown: Less Than 30 Days To The GMAT
From Suits To Startups: Why MBA Programs Are Changing
Why I’m Not Getting Either A Part-Time MBA or An Executive MBA
Preparing To Sit For The GMAT Exam
Falls Short of GMAT Goal, But The 700 Is A Big Improvement
A 2012-2013 MBA Application Strategy
Celebrating A 35th Birthday & Still Wanting A Full-Time MBA
A Tuck Coffee Chat Leaves Our Guest Blogger A Believer
Heading Into the August Cave: Getting Those Round One Apps Done 
Just One MBA Essay Shy Of Being Doe
Getting That MBA Recommendation From Your Boss
Facetime with MBA Gatekeepers at Wharton
The Differences Between Harvard & Stanford Info Sessions
My MIT Sloan Info Session in California 
Round One Deadlines Approaching
Jumping Into The MBA Admissions Rabbit Hole
Relief At Getting Those Round One Apps Done But Now A Sense of Powerlessness
On Age Discrimination in MBA Admissions & Rookie Hype
Judgment Day Nears
Harvard Business School: No News Is Good News?
Researching Kellogg, Tuck, Berkeley and Yale
A Halloween Treat: An Invite To Interview From Chicago Booth
The MBA Gods Have Smiled Once Again
Interviewing At Chicago Booth and Wharton
My Thanksgiving Day Feast: Completing Applications
The Most Painful Part of the MBA Application Process: Waiting
An Invite To Interview At MIT Sloan
An Early Morning Phone Call From Area Code 773 With Good News
An Acceptance From Wharton
Going AWOL From The Admissions Game
The 10 Commandments of the MBA Admissions Game
Networking With Fellow Admits At Wharton and Booth 
MIT Sloan Let My Outspoken, Black Ass In — Hallelujah!
A Scholarship Offer From MIT Sloan
A Five-Star Experience: Wharton’s Winter Welcome Weekend
Dispelling Chicago Booth Myths
Why I’m Going To Wharton–And Not Booth or Sloan
What Happens After You Get Into A Great School 
Why Columbia Business School Has The Best Follies 
GMAT Quant Practice For Class of 2016 MBA Applicants
Can You Really Tell The Truth In An Admissions Essay?
Bound For Wharton & An MBA Degree 
Doing The Pre-Term Thing At Wharton

  • avivalasvegas

    Ah good catch Thanks!

  • Dutch Ducre

    please learn the difference between affect and effect

  • avivalasvegas

    When I look at the pool of folks going into top 4 consulting from my institution, I’ve asked myself who I would want fixing the issues in my company. While there often is a really capable recruit, most of the “top tier” talent hired are excellent drones. i.e. capable of sifting through tons of data daily, working ridiculous hours and unambitious. There is one additional common trait -almost all of them are risk averse (consulting as a profession preys on the risk averse)

    I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want to hire the combination of a lack of investment and experience with my business and these common traits.

  • avivalasvegas

    What about the yield? I’ll end this debate from my side with 2 quotes from a P&Q article that counter your claim that a chasm exists between Wharton and its new found peer schools (Booth, Kellogg etc.) :

    “Wharton’s yield–which the school says hit a new record this year–is not much more than 65%, a number more in the company of Columbia, MIT, Chicago, Northwestern and Dartmouth than Harvard or Stanford…”

    “The acceptance rates at both HBS and Stanford are about half of what they are at Wharton: Stanford’s 8% and Harvard’s 12% versus Wharton’s 22%. The yield–the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll at a school–also is significantly higher at both Harvard and Stanford. Roughly 90% of the applicants accepted at Harvard enroll, and about 85% of the applicants at Stanford take the school up on its offer of admission”

    I’m happy to see you stand up for your institution. I’d do the same if I were you. But its going to be a hard sell when the numbers tell a different story. Good luck!

  • I’m glad the markets declined. I would not have wanted to attend a school so heavily steeped in finance. Those volume losses due to less people looking for finance jobs have not decreased the quality of the students, faculty or programs at Wharton one iota. If anything, nicer people attend than those who were here 10-15 years ago. And when you look at the numbers, the school’s application volume is still heads and shoulders above any other school outside of HBS and the GSB. It is at parity with the GSB for app volume, and that makes sense. Stanford has done more to bolster the demand for its school (campus wide) than any other University in the past 10-20 years due to how beautifully it has capitalized on its Silicon Valley locale. Then nearly every one throws an app at HBS just based on the Harvard brand (with or without HBS) alone worldwide–especially when you consider that half of MBA applications come from China and India.Then after Wharton, there is a very noticeable chasm between it and the Booths/Kelloggs/MITs of the world. Then there is everyone else, plain and simple.

  • I am aware of rags to riches stories–which, by the way–tend to be overwhelming exceptions to the rule. I did not bring up Zuckerberg to rail against privilege. It is what it is. I brought it up to make the point that this conversation about the value of an MBA has largely been fueled by Zuckerberg-like stories.

  • This “industry” you speak of–consulting–involves the hiring of top-tier talent who are given detailed information and rich data about a company prior to making their recommendations. They also get to have an “inside” look at the inner workings of these organizations. That is hardly a direct comparison to people who’s opinions are primarily informed by hearsay and internet articles. There is a world of difference.

  • Megan

    “Additionally, I always find it interesting how those on the outside (of any organization) looking in speak as if they have more insight on what is happening within an organization than those who exist in its ecosystem day in and day out. It doesn’t really make any sense.”

    I don’t get why it doesn’t make any sense to you. There is an entire industry dedicated to hiring “people on the outside” for their insights. This type of thinking is why consultants can’t actually effect change.

  • Neelam

    ” A lot of this debate has gotten steam over the years in lieu of a flurry of Zuckerberg-like start up success stories of people who quit–or never attend–college and go on to build successful companies. What these stories leave out, however, is that such people are highly privileged and often well connected such that an MBA–or even a college degree–hardly presents them with any incremental growth in their network or exposure to opportunities. It’s as if people who either don’t want, don’t have a need or are at some level jealous of elite MBAs want to argue those of us who see value in these degrees down about why we should question that value; and attacks on individual schools–the more prestigious schools in particular–is the typical go to method for producing hot headlines that turn heads and go viral. ”
    There are those who have succeeded without silver spoons in their mouths, without the initial connections and the money. Not all who have done well for themselves are privileged. Dhirubhai Ambani, Chris Gardner and many more were poor people who turned their fate for good. They are the rags to riches people.

  • JohnAByrne

    I think the very best piece written on the issue you raise is this essay by Robert Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia’s School of Business. Check it out:


  • nikhilgarge

    It is very unfair for people to cite Mark Zuckerberg as another succesful example of college dropout.Mark went to Philips Exeter Academy whose alums have shone across a wide array of fields like politics, business, technology.He was in a way very well “networked” even without Harvard. Same goes for William Henry Gates Jr. who did his schooling from Salt Lake City prep school. Traditional MBA programs do need to be tweaked to help future entrepreneurs but that does not dilute a Wharton or NYU MBA.

  • avivalasvegas

    1) Allow me to put it another way then. Had the financial markets and, in turn, finance based careers market not declined, I don’t believe Wharton students would have typically pursued alternative careers path by choice as much as necessity has likely encouraged them to do since 2008. When Investment Banking hiring drops from 26% (2008) to 13% (2013), what else can a program known primarily as finance based do? I believe the school is now focusing on Tech as well?

    2) I’ll avoid making this a issue about the WSJ’s standard of journalism, but generally speaking, its a pretty sound publication that is not without merit.

    3) My point here was that Wharton apps have declined 18% over 5 years whereas its peer schools have not shown sustained declines over the same period. I was not trying to say that the schools don’t large numbers of applications because we all know that they all do.

    4) I’ve heard nothing but good things about your friend. Its sad that she has to leave but I don’t believe the timing of her departure was a coincidence.

  • 1) I never asserted that the diversification was the cause (or even a cause) of the decline of students going into finance roles. Everyone knows that finance is not what it used to be. My point was that the diversification was happening concurrently with the decline of students going into finance roles, which only makes sense. If finance now takes up a smaller piece of the pie, then that share is automatically being applied elsewhere. I also see it as a good thing. I wouldn’t want to attend a Wharton chuck full of Gordon Gecko types. Folks like that are part of the reason why the economy has had to correct itself in the way that it is doing so now.

    2) The WSJ’s chief assertion centered around application declines due to a soft finance industry and a lost of prestige associated that. I opined that the perception that finance was what the school is primarily good for is inconsistent with its actual reality. From that perspective, its a branding issue. The professors are the same. The quality of students are the same, but we’re more diverse than predecessors from a decade ago. Semester in SF didn’t exist then; neither did entrepreneurship in any large numbers, and there is data to support that. Unless the WSJ can report some huge decline in the quality of the actual education and opportunities (neither of which have declined; the latter of which has actually improved), then…yeah…that’s pretty much a branding issue. The fact that the WSJ wrote it doesn’t automatically mean that its deeper on that.

    3) The fact Wharton apps have declined in the wake of the financial crisis makes sense; however, to insinuate that the schools behind it are not comparable in apps not only makes no sense; it’s just not factual. The data for that is here: http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/the-short-list-grad-school/articles/2013/05/28/10-b-schools-with-the-most-full-time-applicants

    4) I had personally caught wind of Ankur’s departure several weeks before the WSJ came out; however, that is her personal business and I didn’t care to go into explicit detail about that. I’m not a journalist, so I have no incentive to sensationalize what I write or drop every detail that I have been made privy of. Additionally, this excerpt was a part of a much longer post from my blog and was written within the context of the entire post. The P/Q read eliminates some of that context by omission.

  • avivalasvegas

    Well written. However, I find it interesting that you chose the following positions:

    1) That the decline of students going into Finance related roles has to do with diversification vs. the decline of the finance industries themselves

    2) You dilute the issues raised by a publication like the WSJ to mere branding issues

    3) You seem to ignore the recent decline in applications to Wharton vs. the relatively stable numbers at the other top 5 programs

    4) You acknowledge no link between the timing of Ankur’s resignation and the WSJ article

    I get that you’re proud of your institution It is a great program indeed. But perhaps a more open attempt at identifying deeper potential issues is key to fixing them?

  • Thanks for this comment. What is above is a snippet pulled from a longer piece that is on the actual blog. There is better citation there of articles that point to the MBA debate–a debate that I will be going into greater detail on in an upcoming post. Also my point that you allude to was that the actual experience of the program from the faculty to the quality of recruiting is world class despite any dip in applications. The WSJ doesn’t provide any empirical data that shows that any of those have fallen of; only dubious citations of “applicants”, “consultants” and “recruiters”. The recruiters must have missed the memo because the top echelon of companies hire tons of Wharton grads each year; and consultants are perpetually positioning themselves to remain relevant and necessary. Personally, I would not have wanted to even go to Wharton during the days when it was overrun by mostly finance students. Knowing that to be the case would have had me to never have applied in the first place, or at the very least would have had me accept the Sloan offer over Wharton’s. At the same time, I agree that the school should be doing a much better job of branding and I thought that prior to applying. I think the administration is resting too much on the brand because, quite frankly, that brand still brings in top notch students from all over the world. Still, however, no excuse. Their long term strategy should be better than what it appears to be in this area (branding). Again, thanks for your well articulated opinion.

  • Jake

    Nicely written piece, and agree the school is not in any danger of losing it’s status as a top program anytime soon. But the author glosses over the fact that Wharton arguably has mishandled it’s branding as of late (essentially just one paragraph addresses this — though to be fair, Mr. Grant’s article does elaborate on this more). I think many would respectfully disagree with the assertion that this has “no bearing” whatsoever on the program, students, etc. Also, there have been some other lapses/recent errors from the administration which have been reported on as well, but were not addressed in the above article. Finally, the author’s main focus on the decline of the MBA degree as a whole seems to be a bit of a red herring distracting from the topic at hand.

    The stakes are high — Wharton is certainly one of the best B-schools in the world — which is why people are (understandably) expecting more.