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Online Extra: Degreed but Unprepared

James Danko, dean of Villanova University's College of Commerce & Finance, has been around the B-school block, with stints at Dartmouth, Babson, North Carolina, and Michigan. Needless to say, he has seen a lot during his 15-year B-school career, but nothing that prepared him for this: In response to declining applications, several MBA programs have begun accepting students straight out of undergraduate schools -- without the five years of work experience most programs now require.

Advocates say relaxing the five-year rule will make it easier for women to launch their careers. But it also puts the MBA's pedagogical underpinning -- students learning from the experience of others -- at risk. Danko recently sat down with BusinessWeek reporter Geoff Gloeckler to talk about why undergrads need a few years of seasoning in the corporate world before heading off to B-school. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

In your view, why is recruiting undergrads not the solution to declining application numbers?

A lot of it has to do with our responsibility to the people who are hiring our students. They see a tremendous value to hiring people who have had three or four years of experience between their undergrad and their grad school. They have had people who are 23 and 24, and their savvy, their maturity, and the knowledge of what they want out of their career is limited compared with that of a 30-year-old who has worked for a few years, then has gone on to get an MBA.

The market says it all. Companies will pay far more for someone with work experience. Unequivocally, they would pay more for someone who is 30 and has the work experience compared to someone who is 24 and without. I think that tells you quite a bit.

Is experience the most important part of the application?

It's hard to weight the parts of an application, but I would probably gravitate toward the experience. The GMAT and undergrad GPA are the minimum hurdles. If you don't have the quantitative abilities, you are going to be more likely to fail. The experience refines the ability to ascertain the leadership potential of an applicant. It's hard to take someone who has gone through four years of college without really applying it in some way, to determine whether or not they have the potential to be a strong leader.

Aside from lower pay, what are the disadvantages of getting an MBA without previous work experience?

I sometimes wonder why people would choose to do that without the time in between. I think when you go into an MBA program after working for a few years, you have a better ability to start zeroing in on areas that are of interest and are really going to move you in your career.

Whereas if you do an undergrad business major and then an MBA, you're probably doing general courses except for that rare exception where you have someone who is truly gifted, who knew from the time that they came out of the womb that they wanted to go into brand management or investment banking. I think that's pretty rare.

Do you think the lack of experience in some students takes away from the classroom give-and-take?

That's the other major problem. If you're in a classroom, the idea is that you have a diverse group of people with a variety of experiences and a broad background. It's very unlikely that someone who has maybe worked in high school or part-time in college is going to be able to contribute to the conversation, except in a more theoretical way. The MBA education has to be at that intersection of theory and practice, and if you're in a classroom just speaking theoretically without the experience, I don't think you have the ability to advance the conversation.

Why are schools doing this?

We are a business, at the end of the day. I'm not sure how aggressive it is. I think the schools in a more secure position in terms of their applicant pool have not really gone to this. I think the primary motivator is to increase the applicant pool. But there have to be other solutions.

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