Why UNC Enrolls So Many Online MBAs Without A GMAT

A student in Kenan-Flagler’s MBA@UNC online MBA program

In the aftermath of a lower-than-expected ranking for its online MBA program, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is telling students and alumni why 86% of its latest incoming class of online students got into the school without either a GMAT or a GRE test score.

In a letter obtained by Poets&Quants, Senior Associate Dean for MBA Programs Sridhar Balasubramanian told students and alums the school is largely forgoing its required standardized test requirement for online students because they have double the work experience of students in Kenan-Flagler’s on-campus MBA offering. The email was sent after the school’s online MBA program was ranked 20th by PoetsandQuants in its debut ranking of the best online MBA offerings in the U.S.

“Poets&Quants seems to have ignored this diversity in our student body and assumed that all students are – or should be – comparable to Residential students,” wrote the senior associate dean. “Just as a point of comparison, our MBA@UNC students currently have, on average, double the work experience of the students in the residential program.”


Sridhar Balasubramanian, senior associate dean at Kenan-Flagler

What Balasubramanian did not note, however, was that the average age of UNC’s online students it not appreciably older than many rival programs that have far more stringent admissions standards that rarely if ever waive a standardized test. The latest crop of online students at Indiana’s Kelley School of Business, for example, have an average age of 31, compared to UNC’s 33, yet 86% of the online students submitted either a GMAT or GRE score for admission. Of the top ten online MBA programs in U.S. News’ latest 2018 ranking, only UNC and Maryland report fewer than half the incoming students without standardized test scores.

The UNC dean also said that the school’s own analysis showed that a GMAT exam is “a poor predictor of performance” for admits with more work experience. “Our research on our admissions and student performance data indicates that the GMAT is a poor predictor of performance for students with significant work experience; thus, we tend to waive the GMAT for those students and evaluate those applications based more heavily on their work experience,” wrote Balasubramanian.

“But even in those cases, we ask for the GMAT if there are any concerns about the quality of work experience or educational background. We evaluate the first (smaller) set of students who typically have a shorter span of work experience similar to the way we evaluate applicants to our Residential program, and expect the GMAT.  We also found that the need to take the GMAT was holding back many of our highest-potential applicants with many years of work experience from even applying to the MBA@UNC program.”


The dean maintained that the school could easily change its admissions standards. “It is not hard for us to change our GMAT policy,” he added. “But, allow me to say that those of us who are associated with the MBA@UNC program are extremely pleased with the quality of students in the program, the rich range of experiences they bring to the table, and the multiple ways they contribute to enhancing the program and UNC Kenan-Flagler. Know this – I will personally stand behind the quality of our MBA@UNC students any time, any day. That quality of students is something we will not compromise on – we just believe that the GMAT score is a very poor way of measuring student quality for the experienced student.”

Balasubramanian also outlined a series of initiatives to improve MBA@UNC, including the debut of a new Chapel Hill immersion later this year and increased coaching resources for students. He listed nine separate initiatives that have either been recently implemented or are in the planning stages:

1.     Launching the new Chapel Hill Immersion this year.

2.     Bringing more rigor to the immersions through the required learning assignments.

3.     Breaking up the 4 credit electives into 2 credit electives – one foundational and one advanced – this makes it consistent in terms of credits with the rest of the school and also will allow our MBA@UNC students to more flexibly design their curriculum by taking more electives.

4.     Planning to launch a MBA@UNC Community Newsletter.

5.     Incorporating a regular, informal meet and greet with Doug, myself and others online to exchange ideas and views online.

6.     Special lectures on topics of current interests hosted online.

7.     Continuing to break down the barriers to taking classes and enhancing learning across programs.

8.     Communicating even more effectively about what makes MBA@UNC and UNC Kenan-Flagler really special – there is an entire external website design process in the works under UNC Kenan-Flagler’s new Chief Marketing Officer.

9.     Increased resources focused on enhancing the student experience and coaching for MBA@UNC going ahead.


Balasubramanian said the school didn’t participate in the debut ranking by P&Q because “Kenan-Flagler foregoes participating in inaugural rankings in order to better understand how the rankings work before deciding to participate.” The school, however, also failed to participate in the latest online MBA ranking published today by the Financial Times. That ranking is in its fifth year and Kenan-Flagler has never made the list.

“You may not realize this but the school receives rankings participation requests from over two dozen sources and organizations globally each year across its programs. We don’t participate in all rankings out there – we are thoughtful and deliberate about the rankings in which we participate. If we participated in all rankings, we would be so focused on data gathering, organization and coordination that we would have little time to focus on what we really want to do – improve continuously.”

The dean also appeared to take issue with P&Q’s decision to use a subset of data from its alumni surveys for Kenan-Flagler after the school declined to allow an independent survey of its own graduates. When P&Q was unable to survey a school’s alumni, it substituted a score equal to the bottom quartile scores across all of the completed surveys. The dean said that the school’s end-of-term student surveys scoring both the program overall and students’ willingness to recommend MBA@UNC to a friend/colleague at close to 9.0 on a 10-point scale. In contrast, P&Q alumni surveys found that Carnegie Mellon online grads rated the school a 10 when it came to whether they would recommend their program to others, while those at Ohio University and the University of Massachusetts gave their programs a 9.8, and IU Kelley and Lehigh alums scored their schools a 9.7.

He noted that it was unlikely the school would participate in the future because of the tougher admission standards criteria that P&Q uses to rank online programs. “Any survey that puts such a high emphasis on the weighted GMAT score will be biased against MBA@UNC,” he added. “Therefore, it is not clear to us that we should participate in the survey in the years ahead.”

(See the following page for the complete letter from UNC)


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