B Schools Are Taking A Crash Course In Hoopla

It seemed like just another New York cocktail party. Business cards floated. Cocktails flowed. White-suited waiters served fancy hors d'oeuvres. But beneath the chatter in the high-ceilinged room, a handful of anxious people were doing some hard selling.

The dean of Dartmouth College's Amos Tuck School of Business, Edward A. Fox, faculty, and alums were out in full force at Manhattan's Explorers Club on April Fool's Day, talking up their school and glad-handing prospective students. Dartmouth dubs these events "yield parties," meant to persuade Tuck's accepted applicants to enroll. "This is where you can really get down and dirty," says Paul A. Argenti, a Tuck professor. It's where Tuck aims "to close the deal."

Tough M&A talk from a B-school prof? Welcome to Reality 101, master's level. Beginning Apr. 15, MBA wannabes will decide which schools they'll attend come autumn. That has touched off an unusually fierce competition between normally straitlaced universities. Faced with declining interest in MBA programs and demographic changes, even the top schools are embracing marketing ploys and gimmicks to woo the best and brightest.

Many are hiring public-relations firms to tout their merits. The University of Chicago, for example, tapped the high-powered former chief executive of Hill & Knowlton Inc., Robert L. Dilenschneider, to flack its MBA program. Some schools are dangling more scholarship money. At the Dartmouth get-together, applicant Kevin Vassily notes that Duke University's J. B. Fuqua School of Business even trumpeted the first-dibs he'd have on season tickets for the school's basketball team, the Blue Devils.

Such frenzy is a far cry from the halcyon days of a few short years ago, when B-schools sat back and waited for applications to flow in. However, the number of people taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) has dropped 20% in the past two years. Interest is declining even in elite schools, such as Northwestern University's J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, where applications have plummeted by 12% since its 1991 peak.

The bad news has business schools nervous: An admissions drop could cut into the big revenues that many programs generate. That's why admissions officers are scurrying to adopt marketing strategies to differentiate their schools from among the 1,000 institutions now offering MBAs around the world. "In the 1980s, the attitude was: 'Our applications are up, and you're lucky to get in,' " says Ethan Hanabury, admissions director of Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. "We've completely changed now."

TAPES AND DISKS. Schools are turning to increasingly high-powered, high-tech tactics. At least 10 of BUSINESS WEEK's top 40 schools dispatch videotapes--costing $30,000 to $60,000 to produce--to prospective students (table). The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where applications have dropped more than 20% in the past three years, sends accepted applicants interactive floppy disks, in an attempt to hook students by providing details on everything from Philadelphia to student profiles. Kellogg has put its application on computer disks to make it easier to apply, and offers Saturday interviews and extended phone hours to accommodate applicants.

Other schools prefer the personal touch. Wharton boasts offices in Paris and Tokyo and for the first time is hosting receptions abroad for admitted students. Cornell University's Graduate School of Management Dean Alan G. Merten sets aside 7 to 10 nights every spring to telephone the best applicants. "Only a few years ago, people would have said you were crazy for spending so much time," he says. Cornell also has established a toll-free phone number so applicants can establish a "personal relationship" with admissions staff. Many schools ask current students, alumni, and faculty to badger accepted applicants as well.

Does all the pitching have any effect? Karen M. Rasmussen, a Cornell applicant, was flattered by Merten's call. "Definitely that will be a major factor in my decision," she says. Look at it this way: At the least, applicants get a free lesson in high-powered sales tactics even before they hit campus.

      Business schools are making videos to lure exceptional students. Here are 
      reviews from this year's crop: 
        The Charles River set to Van Morrison, with Dean Lester Thurow at his 
      quotable best. Emphasizes the school's international focus. 
         Fall foliage and the North Carolina hills are enough to sway even Ivy League 
      snobs. Plays up Duke's cooperative culture and teamwork, but could have used 
      more details about the program. 
           Fluff City. This slick production features dizzying graphics set to 
      uplifting classical music. But a little too much sun, surf, and fun--not much 
      on what makes this school strong.