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How Darden Hit No. 1 in Student Satisfaction

Yet another finding was that some faculty unwittingly contributed to some of the dissatisfaction. “Traditionally, most faculty think of recruiting as a necessary evil,” says Liedtka. “They believe that students are here for an education, and ‘yes they want a job, but the less time they spend with career services the better. Let’s not let it interfere with what goes on in the classroom.’ What we came to realize is that our attitude was driving the prime source of dissatisfaction for our students. Unless we as faculty were willing to be better partners with our career services people, some students were going to have problems with that. So this was very much a mind shift.” It meant that faculty needed to be more helpful in using their connections to help students with their job searches, especially when a student wanted a less-than-mainstream MBA job.

The research team frequently found that the highs were the inverse of the lows. “Getting the great internship you really loved, getting the job offer from McKinsey or Goldman was a greal high,” says Liedtka. So was being part of the community and feeling like you knew everyone. When they were good, they were great; and when they were bad they were awful. One of the high points of Darden is when students coming back from their summer internships because they find the hard work in the first year paid off. It’s an affirmation of the choices they’ve made and what they’ve learned and that provides an emotional high when they come back for the second year.”

ODDLY, THE MOST IMPORTANT CHANGE FROM THE RESEARCH DIDN’T IMPACT THE CLASS OF 2010.

The report led to numerous changes but not particularly for the Class of 2010, the highly satisfied graduates in BusinessWeek’s latest satisfaction survey. This past fall, for example, Darden broke its traditional semester scheduling and moved to shorter, intense modules lasting up to four weeks each In between these shorter educational bursts, the school freed up a week’s time to accommodate the job search needs of MBAs as well as student-run conferences and other activities. “You now go four weeks really hard and then have a week comprised of co-curricular and career activities,” says Carraway. The change took a lot of conflicting pressure off of the students, allowing them to better balance the academics with recruiting and social life. It also led to more coordinated programming between the curriculum and the co-curricular events. A student conference on global finance, for example, was scheduled in the down week just after first years finished a course on Global Economics and just before they would start the basic Finance course.

If the change didn’t impact the Class of 2010 in the survey, how come they were so satisfied? Carraway and Liedtka have a theory. “Even though they didn’t experience directly this major change in our structure,” says Carraway, “we heavily engaged them in creating the change. They were big players in helping shape what we came up with.” Adds Liedtka:  “Students know that we care enough about them to go through this and make changes. That is a powerful message. So there are probably some indirect effects as well. I think they can be as powerful as the direct effects.”

Of course, a 13-point jump in one survey also suggests that the differences in rank among the schools are so small that those differences may lack statistical validity. This is especially possible because the previous two BusinessWeek MBA surveys in which Darden respectively finished 14th and sixth were factored into the school’s overall ranking of one. Those two polls from the classes of 2008 and 2006 represented half of the weight in the student satisfaction portion of the BusinessWeek ranking (see student satisfaction ranking on next page).