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Cornell Debates Grade Non-Disclosure Policy

Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business is apparently debating the merits of a grade non-disclosure policy for MBA students, even after a task force of students and faculty decided last semester to continue revealing letter grades.

According to The Cornell Daily Sun today (April 4), the task force spent nearly a year studying the impact of grade non-disclosure policies and also interviewed alumni, students and corporate recruiters who hire Johnson MBAs.


Johnson School Student Council President José Gaztambide told the student newspaper that he questioned the administration’s policy on grade disclosure, saying that poor grades are not always a reflection of a lack of effort on the part of students. He believes it can be difficult to balance academics with job searches, the paper reported.

“The second half of first semester is when the more difficult core classes start, networking really picks up and recruiters start coming to campus,” Gaztambide was quoted saying.

Another MBA student, Richa Sood, said that some students feel that the academic pressure that results from grade disclosure can diminish the quality of the Johnson School experience. “[Grade disclosure] takes away from getting to know your classmates and getting to know what’s going on in the business world,” she told the newspaper.

Though non-disclosure policies are rare to non-existent at medical and law schools, they have gained ground on business school campuses largely via student referendums. Nine of the most selective MBA programs in the U.S. now have some form of a grade non-disclosure policy, including Stanford, Chicago Booth, and Wharton. Yet, no schools ranked between 20 and 50 have such policies, according to the blog Freakonomics.


Columbia Business School was the last major school to go with a non-disclosure policy that went into effect last summer. In a March 2011 referendum, in which 91% of MBAs and EMBAs participated, 77% of the student body voted to approve the non-disclosure of grades, GPAs, and transcripts to employers until a student accepts a full-time, post-graduation position with an employer.

When the Columbia policy was announced, Class of 2012 MBA student Philip Crouse defended the change in a statement issued on the school’s website. “We believe that grade non-disclosure promotes greater academic risk-taking, teamwork, experiential learning, and community building in the classroom, resulting in more well-rounded graduates, better employees, and stronger leaders,” Crouse said. “While each student has the legal right to determine whether or not to disclose his or her grades, the student body chose grade non‑disclosure as a collective norm.”


Faculty generally oppose the idea on the belief that many students won’t work as hard if they can hide behind a non-disclosure rule. Two Wharton economists who studied non-disclosure policies found that self-reported levels of learning have mostly fallen since the introduction of grade non-disclosure policies. Surveys showed that MBA students spent 22% less time on academics in the first four years after a school approves non-disclosure.

According to economists Daniel Gottlieb and Kent Smetters, such policies allow elite students a “free ride” because corporate recruiters are still going to meet the school’s median salary levels due to MBAs’ perceived value to their organizations. That’s less true at schools that are not considered elite by recruiters, which is why only students at elite schools tend to pass these policies.

“Students at elite schools are the most likely to adopt a non-disclosure policy, subsequently reducing their effort,” wrote Wharton’s Gottlieb and Smetters in an academic paper on the subject. “Intuitively, a non-disclosure policy allows the median voter to study less and then pool to receive the expected (mean) wage, which might be more valuable to her than receiving the median wage with effort. For plausible wage distributions, the desire to pool becomes more valuable at more selective schools. A vote for non-disclosure, however, allows the median voter to essentially “free ride” off of the expected pooled wage, which will be advantageous when there are enough students who are more productive than the median voter.


About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.