The past year's business scandals have put a spotlight on the importance of ethics and integrity in Corporate America. And business schools are responding, finding new ways to incorporate ethics materials into their curricula (see BW Online, 6/13/02, "Where Can Execs Learn Ethics?" and 9/6/02, "For MBAs, Soul-Searching 101").
School recruiters are on the offensive, too. Take the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (No. 1 in BusinessWeek's 2000 MBA rankings). There, the admissions office has hired an independent firm to screen applicants and is working to market the MBA to industries beyond those that have traditionally relied on it most.
BusinessWeek Online Management-Education Reporter Brian Hindo recently chatted with Wharton's Director of Admissions Rosemaria Martinelli, and Associate Director of Admissions Alex Brown, about these developments -- and about the coming admissions season. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: The world has changed a lot since last year's application season, with September 11 and all of the business scandals. Are you noticing a different type of applicant?
Martinelli: There was a sense of introspection, especially in Round One applications. They were very, very strong. But I don't think we saw much difference in the diversity of applicants, meaning their industry backgrounds or whether more of them were domestic or international.
To me, people seemed to be thinking through their lives a bit more. I know I did. That didn't hold through the entire year, because I think as we got further away from September 11, we got back into our routines to some extent.
Q: The bulk of the corporate malfeasance came to light after last year's application rounds had passed. But has that been on people's minds? Have you seen new applicants putting an increased emphasis on corporate responsibility?
Martinelli: Well, I know our students are. The entering class is talking about this a great deal. I don't think we've seen that with the applicants yet, because we haven't seen anyone. But we are hearing about it with prospects visiting campus.
Brown: I believe -- and this is a personal opinion, not necessarily the Wharton opinion -- that the Enrons and the WorldComs have damaged the brand of the MBA. Such events are going to hinder our efforts to diversify our product and bring the MBA into different markets.
So we're trying to be very aggressive in pushing the value of the MBA, so that it doesn't become associated with some of the issues we've seen this summer. Now, we're seeing applications from different industries.
Q: Have you noticed any difference in the past year in potential career paths among prospective applicants? Or are they similar to what they've been traditionally?
Brown: Historically, the MBA has become so closely aligned with consulting and investment banking that many people who could really benefit from the MBA aren't necessarily seeking one.
Moreover, industries outside of consulting, investment banking, and a few others typically don't send people to MBA programs. So we've been more aggressive in developing educational materials to show them how the MBA fits for them. A lot of companies wouldn't encourage a person to leave and get an MBA, like a consulting firm might.
Q: Are you targeting specific industries with this effort?
Brown: To start with, the media and entertainment and not-for-profit industries. We interviewed a bunch of alumni from those industries and had them talk through why they decided to get an MBA, why Wharton, what they're currently doing, and the relevance of their Wharton experience.
We're developing marketing material to try to trigger an epiphany, to get people to recognize the value of the MBA even though they might have had negative perceptions of the degree in the past. We're going to ask our current students in those industries to get that information out to their peers and colleagues. This is a pilot project that, if successful, we would roll out to any industry group.
Q: The Wharton School recently hired ADP Screening & Selection Services to vet admissions applications. When and why did you decide to take that step?
Martinelli: In the winter months, we started talking about how it's increasingly difficult for us to do the type of evaluative checks we would need to cover the entire applicant pool. In our application, we've always made our students grant us the permission to do background checks. But we just didn't have time.
Sometime in January, we starting tossing around the idea, consulted with the university and some of its vendors, then signed a contract in March. So it really was in advance of all the ethics issues.
We were concerned with the degree of exaggeration -- and perhaps even outright lies -- in applications, and we wanted to make sure that we were selecting candidates who were honest about themselves. We're hoping never to catch anyone. This a deterrent, we hope.
Q: Can you give an example from past years of the kind of exaggeration you're talking about?
Martinelli: It's very easy for students to embellish their experience, but that's not what we're really after. We're looking for bold lies. "I worked for a company that didn't exist, I held a title that didn't exist" -- that type of lie. There are a number of exaggerations we would like to limit as well. A lot of times we talk about ourselves in grander terms than we live out in reality.
I think the idea is to show students that you can be yourself and be admitted to Wharton. You don't have to fabricate this wonderful application. We're looking for an individual's motivations and passions, not a person who's highly accomplished and has it all down pat. Otherwise, they wouldn't need the MBA.
Brown: I don't think there's a huge problem with the applicant pool. That's not why we instituted this policy. The issue is, if there's one person who exaggerates or flagrantly lies on their application, and we don't catch that and we admit that person, we're excluding someone else from coming to Wharton who was completely honest.
Q: Last spring a Wharton student was expelled when a fabrication was discovered on the student's resume. Did that have any bearing on this decision?
Martinelli: Well, it did have a bearing on this decision, because it was very upsetting to the school. Ethical misconduct at Wharton is taken incredibly seriously. The punishments may seem a little overdone, but that's how we react to things like this. I want to know that everyone we're admitting is part of the Wharton community and that we're not moving past somebody who should be here because somebody else fabricated an application. So we're trying to ensure that everyone who's here belongs here and can contribute.
Brown: That incident aside, we do get e-mails now and again from people saying, "Look, I know so-and-so applied to your school and I can tell you he or she never did whatever it is that they're saying." Now, I don't think I can disclose what we do after that, but I think the community to some extent polices itself because students want us to be 100% free of any ethical issues.
Q: The MBA is as popular as it has ever been. Do you worry that with so many people going back to school for an MBA there's too much supply?
Martinelli: If you think that the MBA only feeds a couple of industries, perhaps you could imagine that there's going be a glut. But I believe the relevance of the MBA far exceeds the narrow breadth of industries that we typically think of as destinations for MBA students. The values and skills that you learn are incredibly relevant, whether you're in the nonprofit, media, or arts sectors, whatever you want to do. They're basic skill sets that are adaptable to all these industries.
Q: So that all said, are there ways in which you would like to see Wharton's student profile improved or altered?
Martinelli: There are some areas I would like to see grow. I'd like for some of the younger applicants to take a look at their timing -- I'd like to see some younger superstars. I'd like to see more women and more nontraditional students.
That happens naturally in the pool, so we're just going to continue to market very broadly, or educate very broadly, about the value of the degree. It's up to the individuals to determine what the class looks like next year. It's not something we're going to craft.
Q: I know it's early still in the application season, but from your inquiries, do you anticipate that this year will be as competitive in terms of volume as last year was?
Brown: I would doubt that we'll be breaking any records this year. Last year, we were impacted to some degree by a delay factor: In the late '90s, people who were well qualified weren't necessarily applying to business school. Last year, I think the increase in volume was attributable to some degree to the economic downturn, and also to this delay.
So we don't expect the same volume as last year. However, it's always going to be competitive. I don't want the message to be that this is an easy year to apply to business school, because then people won't put the requisite effort into writing a great application. It's still going to be tough.