July 25, 2011 12:19 am

Variety is the spice of MBA life

MBA diversity by Stuart Briers

The financial crisis, which threw the spotlight on MBA programmes and graduates, combined with the management needs of a new breed of industries, mean that business schools are now trying to recruit a different type of student to their MBA programmes. This is particularly true at top US business schools Harvard, Wharton and Stanford. Where these schools lead, others follow.

Diversity is the watchword, and the number of women, entrepreneurs, military personnel, environmentalists and not-for-profit managers being accepted is evidence of the type of students who will join this year’s incoming class, the class of 2013.

The developments are the result of long-term strategy, says Dee Leopold, managing director for MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard. “We have worked hard to find different leadership styles,” she says. “It’s a story that has to be told in prose, not soundbites.”

But perhaps just as significant as increasing diversity is the average age of incoming students. This is not decreasing, as was widely feared three or four years ago, when US schools argued that the long work experience requirement meant that the average 27-year-old was already on a career path that did not require an MBA.

At the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, J.J. Cutler, director of MBA admissions and financial aid, says previous managerial experience is key to recruiters. “All the feedback from employers is that they want work experience. We want a mature, diverse class.” Some 78 per cent of the class of 845 at Wharton have four or more years of work experience.

Student numbers in top MBA programmes

At Harvard, the statistics are even more telling. There, the average age of the incoming class is 27 – par for the course for a two-year US programme. But it was Harvard’s decision a few years ago to launch its “2+2” programme – in which undergraduate students were offered a deferred place at Harvard if they completed two years of work experience at a designated company – that sparked the idea that the very best MBA programmes were planning to enrol younger students.

The first entries from the 2+2 programme should join Harvard later this year. Of the 106 on the programme, a third have decided to further defer business school, leaving 65 participants from the programme in the class, which has a total of 918 students. Ms Leopold is unperturbed. While 2+2 was “a catchy name”, she says, there were never strict rules about students joining in a given year, and participants are welcome to work for additional years if appropriate. Although Harvard intends to continue with the deferred offer scheme, participants will no longer be required to work with a list of Harvard-specified companies.

“The kind of people we admit are going to find the employers on their own,” says Ms Leopold. “The core proposition is the guarantee [of a place on the Harvard MBA]. What we want to do is to encourage the group to be independent.”

What is more, there are an additional 50 or 60 admitted students with a similar profile who applied through the usual application cycle, she adds, pointing out that there are no students in the incoming class with no work experience at all.

Harvard is not the only school where rumours of younger students are proving misplaced. At the Simon school at the University of Rochester, which launched its “early leaders” initiative a few years ago, the average age of the incoming class went down to 26. This year, the average age has risen back to 27. Mark Zupan, dean at the Simon school, says the programme has been successful but there are issues in finding the right students. “It’s a matter of finding the right drive, having the right motivation,” he says.

The Simon school has also started to cater for younger students through a range of specialised one-year masters degrees in topics such as management, finance and marketing – which follows the European model. Graduates of these programmes can return to complete their MBA in only one year.

One of the advantages of the young leaders programme seen by Simon is an increase in the number of female applicants – about 50 per cent of those designated as young leaders are women. The increasing number of women entering top programmes is particularly significant this year. At Harvard, the figure is up from 36 to 39 per cent, and Wharton tops the charts with a 45 per cent female intake this year, up from 40 per cent last year.

“This is not a one-year sensation,” says Ankur Kumar, deputy director of admissions at Wharton. “This has been a focal point for the past few years. We wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes and misconceptions [about MBA programmes].”

Wharton has begun to talk to young women in high schools as well as colleges to persuade them of the value of a business education. Dean Tom Robertson believes that the tipping point was having 40 per cent female students last year. “There is a critical mass issue. Women feel there is a critical mass of women [at Wharton].”

At both Harvard and Wharton, nearly half the students (43 per cent) graduated with humanities or social science majors and only 12 per cent of admitted students at Harvard and 14 per cent at Wharton came from investment banking, one of the traditional sources of applicants.

Stanford, meanwhile, has adopted a different strategy to most top schools. It is working with other departments in the university so that these days one in six students is studying for an MBA alongside another degree, according to dean Garth Saloner.

The enrolment of non-US students is still a diversity issue in the top US schools. Wharton has just 36 per cent international students in the class of 2013, and Harvard 34 per cent.

This means that an Asian school, such as Ceibs in Shanghai, has already leapfrogged the top US schools in this regard. Five years ago, the number of students from outside China on the Ceibs programme was less than 20 per cent. This year, it will be 39 per cent. Nearly 10 per cent of the total class are from the US.

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