Why would you leave Wharton?
Dean Geoffrey Garrett was asked this rather obvious question when he departed for USC’s Marshall School in 2020. After all, Wharton is considered the top full-time MBA program in some circles. In Philadelphia, Garrett had a sparkly brand, unlimited resources, and deep-pocketed alumni. At USC, he was already facing the fallout from the ouster of Dean Jim Ellis among students, alumni, and faculty alike. Sure, Southern California comes with year-round sunshine and the ocean. But Marshall – why?
Look no further than applications for a seat in the Class of 2022. This fall, Marshall reported a 66.4% increase in applications over the previous year, boasting a record 3,159 applications. To put this in context, this number is 1,142 applications higher than the school’s all-time record from two years ago. And the school hasn’t diluted its standards to bring MBA candidates to campus. This year, the average GMAT was nearly identical to the previous year at 707, with an acceptance rate dropping 5.6 points to 24.3%. Over five years, GMAT scores have risen by 15 points while acceptance rates have fallen by nearly 10 percentage points.
That’s serious progress.
What happened this year? For one, Marshall embraced a more flexible application timeline, pushing back deadlines by months as prospective candidates warily monitored the pandemic. The school also became STEM certified, broadening its appeal to international students. At the same time, the school relaxed standardized testing requirements to attract a different type of applicant to Marshall.
“We were a school that relaxed our standardized test requirement in April, which was pretty late in the cycle,” explains Evan Bouffides, the school’s assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid, who has spent nearly 15 years at the school. “We were in a position where we felt pretty good about where the cycle had been going, we were on pace to hit all of our targets, and then this just opened up a large window for a lot of people who would prefer not to take a test. The irony, though, is that post-April, it became more difficult to be admitted, not less, because of that flexibility, just because there were so many more applicants coming in.”
In a down year for job placement and pay, Marshall’s Class off 2020 managed to enjoy average base pay increase by nearly $5,400 (even though placement and average bonus dipped). Still, perhaps the school’s shining moment came this spring. Watching internships being canceled in the wake of COVID-19, the career services team went to work. Long known for alumni enthusiasm, USC tapped into his vaunted Trojan Network to save the day.
“Basically I took a strategy out of my playbook during the financial crisis in ’09 and ’10,” explains Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director, graduate career services, in a 2020 interview with P&Q. “In mid-March, immediately, when we realized that this was not going to be a short-term virtual work from home, but we were in for a long haul — as soon as I saw two or three companies completely canceled their internships, we began to reach out to the Trojan network. The dean reached out, I reached out, the alumni development folks reached out and we started to identify really high-level, MBA-level projects, or what I call summer work experience. The clubs did the same.”
In the process, the school tapped into one of its strengths: just-in-time projects from Los Angeles’ entertainment industry. Along the same lines, startups embraced the opportunity to bring Marshall MBAs aboard. “We had great numbers from startups that offered stipends to our students here in the L.A. area,” Brostoff adds. “It was amazing to see within a couple of weeks, almost 20 startups come up and say, ‘Hey, we never thought we could get an MBA, or even a graduate student, for summer for only a few thousand bucks. But, wow, we’ve got some great, great opportunities here.’”
That includes Silicon Beach, as it is called, an area that’s home to a diverse array of tech startups and standouts. Here, you’ll find big offices for Google, Amazon, and Apple – not to mention gaming vanguards like Riot Games. These tech firms enjoy natural creative and marketing synergy with Hollywood studios like Disney and Warner Brothers. Perhaps Marshall’s biggest advantage are its graduates, who subscribe to a pay-it-forward enthusiasm like no other.
“My first impression was that the “Trojan Community” was one of the most intense things I had ever seen,” explains Martin Dyer, a member of the Class of 2022. “Once you are part of USC and Marshall, you become part of a family that will go the extra mile to help one another and you take pride in being a Trojan,” he explains. “In my first few months at Marshall, I have already seen the Trojan pride on full display. It is all around you and is contagious, I love it!”
Bottom line: it was an impressive year for USC Marshall, which cracked the Top 20 in both The Economist and The Financial Times global rankings. Here’s the part that’s scary to consider: most of these innovations and advantages happened before Dean Garrett officially started his role in July. Imagine where the school could be in a year when he has a chance to implement his vision.