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

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