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Opposing the Youth Movement

Nick Barniville of Ireland's Smurfit School says allowing undergrads to move straight into MBA programs undermines the purpose of the degree

While many top-ranked American B-schools are allowing some students to enroll in MBA programs straight out of college, not everyone thinks schools should be heading in that direction. One of them is Nick Barniville, MBA program director for the Smurfit School of Business at University College Dublin.

Barniville has been at Smurfit since 2005. Previously, he spent five years at INSEAD, most recently as director of communications, and has worked around the world in marketing, business development, and language interpreting.

Barniville recently spoke with reporter Julie Gordon about the enrollment trend. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

A number of top schools, including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, have been ramping up efforts recently to bring in younger students (see, 8/17/06, "B-Schools: You Don't Have to Wait"). Why doesn't your school want younger candidates?

The whole concept of an MBA program is based around peer-to-peer learning—people coming with diverse experiences into a structured framework, where they're learning potentially how to run a business. So I don't feel that people who have experience are going to gain as much from [a program that admits undergrads], and I don't think recruiters are probably going to be as interested in hiring people who don't have experience, given what their understanding of an MBA is.

Then why do many schools want MBAs straight out of undergrad?

There's incredible competition for the brightest people coming out of undergrad. And there are other graduate programs that don't require work experience—law schools or graduate schools of medicine, things like that. Because they're open to younger applicants, they're probably taking some of the brightest people away from MBA programs. So sometimes people are choosing a career path based around what they can do in the immediate, rather than saying, "I need to work, get some experience, and then go through an MBA."

One of the major issues, particularly for the large programs, is how to fill your spaces. So they're taking in people with less experience…. It means that your program can still look like it has extremely bright people in it, but you're expanding the target.

It's a valid strategy, [but] it's something that I don't particularly agree with. On a more cynical note, you could say that taking in people directly from undergraduate and then flinging them out into the job market would bear up very well in terms of rankings, because they would see a huge salary increase.

Does someone who gets an MBA straight out of undergrad get the same salary after grad school as a peer who already had work experience?

I don't think they would get the same salary, but I think the percentage salary increase would be a lot bigger.

If people are successful in the business world, they often don't want to take a break and go back to get an MBA. Do schools want to get students right away—when they're already in school mode—rather than take the chance they might not come back?

Some people really don't need to get an MBA. Schools should recognize that and not say an MBA is absolute. It's not for everybody. There are people who are very successful in business and very happy in the sector and function that they're in, and who are actually going to move themselves and be able to propel themselves through their own career. What the MBA can do is help people accelerate that process, if that process needs acceleration, or it can help people change their direction, function, or sector.

Do you have any students come right from undergrad?

Well, in Europe it's a little different, because we have a portfolio of about 15 specialist Master's programs. So we have a portfolio of products available for people who want to go straight from undergrad. I think the challenge for some other schools is not to take undergrads into the MBA program but to create a different product portfolio that addresses different market segments rather than bringing the overall brand equity of an MBA down.

What are your concerns regarding recruiters?

If recruiters begin to think that the MBA is really an addition to an undergraduate program in any respect rather than what it actually is—which is a group of experienced professionals coming to, in a certain sense, formalize their experience in a business-administration concentration—that's a major concern. People graduating from our program will have a lot of explaining to do about the value of their MBA if it's associated with programs that are taking in a large proportion of their students directly from undergrad.

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