What Makes A Business School Attractive To Students?

graduate management education

Sangeet Chowfla, former CEO of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, reflects on the business of business education

It’s a competitive dogfight for talent. And I don’t mean amongst corporations and recruiters. I mean amongst business schools themselves. Talented individuals make the most of what the school has to offer. They use it as a springboard to build meaningful careers and they create a virtuous cycle where their success creates an alumni halo that, in turn, attracts other talented individuals. Readers of this column will know that I liken joining a business school to joining a club. They want to join a club of high achievers, not one of also rans.

What then attracts students to a business school? This column draws upon a decade of watching this dynamic – personal observations while interacting with students, quantitative research about student “buyer” behavior, and analytical studies on the topic. Let me summarize:

At the end of the day, after all the shouting is done, students’ selection of a school is based upon three loosely interrelated factors – geography, alumni success, and jobs. There is no great revelation here, most people would tell you something similar. What’s surprising though is how little these factors are reflected in most schools’ segmentation, positioning, and targeting efforts. Let’s look at them in more detail.


Geography trumps all. Major metropolitan areas reflect where people want to live, have a rich business ecosystem that results in internship and job opportunities, and often have large and diverse university systems that enhance the student experience. Small wonder that an analysis of the FT’s listing of global MBA programs had 16 of the top 50 concentrated in just 5 metropolitan areas – New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, London (incl. Oxford and Cambridge), Singapore and Shanghai. Add in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles and the number goes to 21. When you consider that we are looking at all such programs globally, this concentration is remarkable, but not surprising. These schools attract the most “talent” whether measured by application volume or GMAT/GRE percentile scores.

Throw in other major cities such as Paris, Milan, Madrid, Hong Kong and Washington and you add another half dozen to the list.

So, geography is a plus if you have it, or a limiting factor if you don’t. How then do some schools outside these “hot” zones thrive? Through a combination of four factors:

One is to take advantage of other natural factors – Cornell/Johnson has merged with a world leading school of hospitality, JHU/Carey links with a leading healthcare system, Broad takes advantage of linkages with its automotive industry to offer programs in supply chain management, Georgetown is in the American capital with an emphasis on global affairs.

Secondly, schools are trying to position as part of a major metropolitan area even when they are not. Cornell (again) has a campus in New York City, Darden has one in DC, it seems everyone is doing one in Dubai or Singapore. By this I mean real campuses where students spend all or most of their time – not the two week “MBA tourism” jaunts to business hubs that many treat their students to.

Thirdly, many regional schools located outside major business hubs take advantage of student segmentation. There has always been a segment that GMAC calls Balanced Careerists – the quintessential part time student who desires the benefits of a business education but is geographically bound by personal constraints that can be appealed to. This has been the bread and butter of many regional schools – will they stay as more part time education becomes remote? The subject of a future column. In a related play, others are shifting focus to non-degree certificate programs that may be attractive to their local milieu.

And lastly, many schools have overcome geographical disadvantage through a relentless focus on showcasing alumni success and job placement. IESE and ESADE in Europe as well as Duke, Darden and Tuck know that geography will not naturally attract candidates. They compensate.


The Dean of a leading business school once told me that he had only two assets, real estate (by which he meant geography as his school was one of the fortunate ones in a major metropolitan area) and Alumni. Not everyone thinks like that, and many would put faculty, program diversity, their university system, ahead of Alumni in their mental stack. Here they do themselves a disservice. Alumni, when considered, are seen as a resource for development funding and for recruiting. In doing so, we ignore their true value – as a signaling mechanism. Alumni success is a signal to a potential student of their own potential success. Yet, a casual visit to most schools’ websites (the primary place where students gain information about a school and develop their “shortlist”) will see chapter and verse about their faculty and facilities with nary a mention about alumni success – well, maybe mentions about placement rates and starting salaries but not much more. Faculty that gets an award are mentioned, Alumni who do great things are not.

This also sets up an interesting conflict. Educational institutions are wired to think about their mission as broadening reach and expanding opportunities. The Alumni network works best as an exclusive club. The more there are, the lower the common denominator. Admission practices that are perceived to be less selective – a valid approach to broaden access – are also perceived as lowering the common denominator. Throw in increased tuition and we have a potential problem in our strategic construct.


People in the academy hate to say this, but the truth is that business schools are a sophisticated form of vocational school. No one goes to business school because they love the subject – there are no passionate followers of literature here, nobody in it for their love of knowledge. It’s the jobs.

Now, most schools do well on this front, Placement rates are generally high to the extent that jobs are now table stakes. You get punished if placement rates are low but get no credit if they are high because everyone else has that too.

The opportunity lies in shifting the conversation from jobs to careers. It’s not about getting that first job after business but the longer-term trajectory of alumni careers. Don’t talk to me about your job and salary bump as a one off. Show me how you, the school and the alumni network can come together to advance my long-term career. And demonstrate this through alumni stories.

Corporations have discovered that their best testimonials lie not in the patents that they own but in what consumers do with their products. A new function called customer success has been created that focusses on how customers get the maximum usage, and benefit, from their products. Perhaps the time has come for business schools to create a student success function.

This then is the strategic triangle – geography, alumni, and careers. It seems obvious but not many get it right or as crisp as well-run corporations do. The result, students defaulting to the most visible attributes, location. And rankings!

Author and former GMAC CEO Sangeet Chowfla

Sangeet Chowfla led the Graduate Management Admissions Council as president and CEO for nearly ten years from 2014 to 2022. A globally recognized and respected executive with deep experience in the technology, telecommunications, and venture capital sectors, he began his career in New Delhi with IBM/IDM. Chowfla went on to spend 18 years with Hewlett-Packard Co. in Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and the United States. He culminated his tenure with the company as vice president and general manager of the Inkjet Media Division from 1995-2001. He then moved to Timeline Ventures as a partner in the venture capital partnership. In 2007, Chowfla became the chief strategy officer and executive vice president of the Mobile Services and Global Market Units of Comviva Technologies, a leading Indian telecommunications software company. Chowfla joined GMAC during a period of disruption in the organization and industry. During the last three years of his tenure, he helped to stabilize the candidate pipeline, renewed GMAT exam growth, diversified GMAC’s footprint and ensured a strong financial foundation to enable future investment.

Ruminations Columns by Sangeet Chowfla

Reports Of The MBA’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

The Value Of Standardized Testing: Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water

Why Students Go To Business School & How They Make Their Choices

The Changing Face Of International Student Mobility

Why Diversity Is Essential To The Health Of The U.S. Domestic Student Pipeline

A Decade Of Graduate Management Education: ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’

Business Casual Podcast: Interview with Sangeet Chowfla

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