Great investors make it look so easy. Behind every triumph is a trite tale of sifting through details and weighing different criteria. More Hamlet than Caesar, investors wrestle with options, always dwelling over the great questions:
How do I maximize my returns?
How will this team scale growth, sustain quality, and maintain their edge?
MBA applicants act somewhat like investors. They seek identity over customary, security over uncertainty. Evidence is everything – particularly when candidates often invest two years and six figures.
Alas, it doesn’t require much sleuthing to buy stock in Netflix or Target. Their names alone virtually guarantee a rousing return. The real trick is finding a Monster Beverage, with a 20-year return of 87,000%. Of course, MBA candidates aren’t likely to find new business schools popping up to challenge the incumbents. While rankings offer a start, they often reveal how negligible the differences are within tiers. To choose an MBA program with the biggest return, applicants must look behind the numbers – the actions taken and resources allotted that will eventually drive enrollment, experience, and employment.
That’s what ‘Business Schools To Watch’ examines. Entering its 5th year, this feature celebrates the MBA programs that are doing something different – or way better. These schools are staking out bold positions, defying convention, creating new markets, and expanding possibilities. Some may be regaled programs at the Wharton School or Chicago Booth – or upstarts such as Boston University or IMD. Some are overhauling their curriculum. Others are investing in new centers and facilities. Either way, they are taking risks, knowing their work will ultimately bolster the learning opportunities and quality to their students.
Here are this year’s MBA programs whose innovations make them worth watching closely this year.
The naysayers were ready to pounce when Tuck reported a 22% decline in applications this summer. In a down year, Tuck suffered the brunt of a historically brutal year. Amid it all, Luke Anthony Peña remained eerily calm. The executive director for admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth Tuck, Peña chose to focus instead on what really mattered.
“We at Tuck are not immune to the market forces decreasing applications to full-time, two-year MBA programs in the U.S.,” he admitted to P&Q in an August interview. “I do believe, though, that our simplified and streamlined admissions criteria has clarified what makes a strong Tuck applicant, and so even as the overall number of applications decreased, we saw more candidates in our pool who were a strong match for Tuck.”
The reduction certainly didn’t impact quality, as the Class of 2021 produced the highest average GMAT in the school’s history. At the same time, Tuck rocketed to 2nd overall in the 2019 Bloomberg Businessweek rankings, buoyed by a perfect “networking” score and high marks for pay and education quality. On top of that, 2019 grads notched record starting pay at $170,000 average – $15,000 more than the previous year. In fact, 98% of the class received offers within three months of graduation.
No wonder Peña shrugged off a bad year, even if he is using social media overtime to promote the school. He knows what he has is built to last.
Just ask Tuck students themselves. Roberto Ayora Peon, a first-year, claims that “There are no strangers” at Tuck – a nod to the school’s famously tight-knit culture. His classmate, Sarah Elizabeth Blatt, is even more effusive. “At Tuck, I found my tribe. I didn’t want an MBA, I wanted a Tuck MBA. There are amazing schools and programs everywhere. When I’m with Tuckies, I’m home.”
Sophia Cornew, a 2019 P&Q Best & Brightest MBA, describes Tuck as a place where “everyone says “YES!” in all caps.” These students’ willingness to raise their hands doesn’t end when they collect their diploma and leave Hanover in the rearview. As alumni, they remain ‘all in,’ with nearly 70% contributing to the annual fund each year – the highest rate of any business school. Their involvement doesn’t stop with writing checks, either.
“When students enroll at Tuck, they join a global network of accomplished leaders deeply invested in Tuck’s success and in each other’s,” explains Renee Hirschberg, Director of Alumni Engagement and Advancement Operations. “That’s more than 10,000 generous, supportive, and famously responsive alumni connected to you for life.”
Those connections range from being classroom guests to formal networking to supporting TuckGO projects. These connections make all the difference to students like Nathan Farrar. “All students walk away from the top business schools with a fine education and a great job, but not all leave with an active and effective network to fall back on years after graduation. At Tuck, students are welcomed into the most dependable and engaging alumni network in the world.”
Beyond culture and network, Tuck’s savvy moves in recent years have helped the program gain additional ground. In September, the school landed a $25 million dollar gift from Zdenek Bakala (’89) to enhance its signature global immersion program, TuckGO. Notably, the program will increase the industry and regional options available to students, with current opportunities ranging from on-site projects to meetings with area business leaders. As Tuck nears the end of its $250 million dollar “Tuck Difference” campaign, it has begun to spread the wealth, doubling student scholarships (which had already enjoyed a 110% increase over the past four years).
This fall, Tuck also rolled out a revamped core curriculum that reinforces the programming’s focus on strategic thinking, personal leadership, and relation-building. “Central to these refinements were structural changes to the academic calendar,” explains Dean Matthew Slaughter in a statement to P&Q. “We have decompressed the Fall A term, adjusted the timing of certain courses to better support student internship interview preparation, introduced a new sequence of data analytics courses, refined our management course sequence and leadership framework, reduced the required course load in winter to allow for concentrated recruiting, and increased the optionality of elective courses.”
These changes complement Tuck’s tweaks to be admissions criteria, a timeless ‘jerks need not apply’ approach that values four virtues: “smart, accomplished, aware, and nice.” That’s critical in a program like Tuck, where temperament is considered key to learning. “I wanted to eat, sleep and breathe business school,” adds Roberto Ayora Peon. “Tuck allows me to have the opportunity to be 24 hours surrounded by the most accomplished, smart and nicest people in the world…Tuck to me is like an academic sabbatical –two years that I will be able to focus solely on doing the activities that will make me the future leader I want to become.”