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Cornell MBAs Join ‘Grade Non-Disclosure’ Ranks

Cornell Johnson College of Business Class of 2020. Jon Reis Photography

Some business schools with grade non-disclosure policies prohibit students from revealing their grades or GPAs to recruiters until they’ve been hired; some allow students the discretion to choose whether to reveal their grades; most bar recruiters from asking for them, from interns or grads. Whatever the form, most elite business schools have had some form of grade non-disclosure since Wharton adopted it in 1994, Harvard Business School being a notable exception. 

One of the last holdouts among leading schools was Cornell University. No longer. In a statement released Wednesday (September 12), the the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business announced that students have voted to enact a policy of grade non-disclosure, effective immediately. The policy applies to the school’s full-time students in its two-year, one-year, and Johnson Cornell Tech MBA programs.

“We hope that the policy will further a more holistic learning for MBAs and promote collaboration across all programs on campus,” says Marina Dadashev, a 2001 Cornell MBA and the head of Career Management at Cornell Tech. “At Cornell Tech, MBAs work on teams and take graduate-level technical classes with their peers in engineering programs. Additionally, every year a significant number of MBAs start their own ventures. The policy will support our students in stepping outside of their comfort zones.”

CORNELL STUDENTS PASSED REFERENDUM AFTER YEAR OF STUDY

Vishal Gaur. Cornell photo

Grade nondisclosure advocates say the policy gives students freedom to branch out, to take more challenging classes without worrying about a negative impact to their GPAs. Because grades won’t be revealed to potential employers, any inclination to “take the easy way out” has been mitigated. Furthermore, an absence of academic competitiveness is thought to facilitate better networking and the development of stronger relationships. Wharton, Stanford GSB, Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, UC-Berkeley Haas, Michigan Ross, and Columbia Business School are among the many elite schools with some form of grade non-disclosure.

The change at the Johnson School comes after a year-long “strategic study” of student academic experience, recruitment, and grade non-disclosure by a committee of faculty, staff, and students, initiated by Johnson’s Student Council in the fall of 2017. With recruitment for MBA graduates starting earlier and earlier, a need was detected to evaluate “the alignment of academics and recruiting,” according to the Cornell news release. After interviews, focus groups, and surveys with students, alumni, recruiters, and faculty, the committee recommended that the question of grade non-disclosure be put to a student referendum and that Johnson’s letter-grade system remain in place.

“We pride ourselves on our academic rigor and on graduating students who excel on multiple dimensions,” Associate Dean for MBA Programs Vishal Gaur says. “So we worked closely with students to find ways to balance Johnson’s learning goals with recruitment needs. We hope that grade non-disclosure will encourage students to take more academic risks and think holistically about their education, personal development, leadership, and the impact they want to have in the future.” Gaur tells Poets&Quants that “Yes, we did collect information on grade non-disclosure policies at peer schools, and was one of many factors that we considered in the decision-making process.”

Opponents of grade non-disclosure say while it may not incline students to take it easy in their choice of electives, it often cause them to take a more relaxed approach in the classroom, since they do not have to worry about grades being a reason they don’t get a job. Harvard famously reversed its grade non-disclosure policy in 2008; at the time, Richard Ruback, then chairman of Harvard’s MBA program, said “numerous students had claimed that the non-disclosure policy resulted in little motivation to excel.”

RECRUITERS ASKED TO RESPECT STUDENT REFERENDUM

Cornell Johnson students’ referendum is not a blanket one. Under its terms, students will not disclose their grades to recruiters until after a full-time, post-graduation job offer has been extended. The policy covers grade-point averages (GPAs), grades in courses, and grades on assignments or exams, but has exceptions for dual-degree students who are pursuing non-MBA roles (such as JD/MBA candidates who need to disclose their GPAs to law firm recruiters), Johnson Cornell Tech students applying to positions not restricted to MBAs at the Cornell Tech campus, and students applying for fellowships, public sector, international, and/or nonprofit positions.

“The exceptions are important,” says David Capaldi, director of Johnson’s Career Management Center. “For example, for some positions, such as in the federal government, students are required to share a GPA. Where the policy applies, we are asking that recruiters respect the student referendum and refrain from asking Johnson students about their grades.”

Capaldi, who also leads advising for Johnson’s investment banking students, says he doesn’t think the change will significantly impact recruiting. 

“Recruiters know how to ask the right technical and case questions to assess whether a student is ready for the job, and that kind of data is far more helpful to a firm than a GPA,” explains Capaldi, who worked on Wall Street for 20 years before returning to Johnson. “In investment banking, for example, our students have consistently shown their ability to perform in interviews and on the job. We continue to have a very high internship conversion rate for banking, and we are seeing similar trends in consulting and marketing this year as well. Ultimately, that kind of track record is what attracts firms to recruit at Johnson.”

ALIGNING ACADEMIC EXPERIENCES WITH VALUES

Victoria Wilmarth, who earned her MBA from Cornell this spring, says she thinks the move to grad non-disclosure will strengthen the school’s collaborative community.

“Teamwork and a community focus are foundational to Johnson,” says Wilmarth, who served as faculty chair of the Johnson Student Council during her time at Johnson and who is now now the Deland Fellow in Hospital Administration at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was also a member of the committee that studied the issue over the 2017–2018 academic year. “This vote helps bring Johnson’s academic experiences into alignment with the school’s values. I think this will deepen students’ commitment to collaborative learning and support academic risk taking for professional and personal development.” 

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