Harvard: No More Grade Secrets

Against much student opposition, the B-school's new policy will allow MBAs to disclose grades to recruiters

By Jeffrey Gangemi

Sumona Pramanik, a second-year student at Harvard Business School says it's common for students at HBS to share the limelight because until now they didn't have to compete for grades. But that could all change with the Dec. 14 announcement that the school plans to end an eight-year-old policy prohibiting students from revealing their grades to corporate recruiters. Starting with the Class of 2008, students will be permitted, but not required, to share their grades with potential employers.

"With the return of grade disclosure, the incentive for some students to be cooperative may not be there," Pramanik says. Plus, students say the administration failed to properly engage the student body in dialogue before handing down its decision. The policy reversal is final, school officials say, but it likely will be a subject of debate on campus for some time.


  The administration says it's giving students more freedom. "Fundamentally, I believe it is inappropriate for HBS to dictate to students what they can and cannot say about their grades during the recruiting process," wrote Jay Light, Harvard Business School acting dean, in a memo to students on Dec. 15 (see BW Online, 6/6/05, "Harvard's Case Study in Surprise"). "In making this decision, I have listened carefully to concerns voiced by current students, and sought the views of faculty, staff, former students, recruiters, and other key constituencies who also care deeply about this issue and its effect upon HBS."

HBS students are graded on a scale of one to three. They receive a one for being in the top 15% to 20% of the class, a two for being in the middle 70%, and a three for being in the bottom 10% (see BW Online, 4/19/05, "Grade Inflation: Devaluing B-schools' Currency"). Fear of falling into that lower 10% is one reason why some students suggest the rule change could discourage people from signing up for classes containing difficult subject matter.

About six weeks ago, the HBS administration announced to students that it was considering the new policy. The HBS Student Assn. quickly polled 1,559 of the nearly 1,800 full-time MBA students and found that 87% said they were against the change, 6% were in favor, and 7% were indifferent. With such an overwhelming majority opposing the measure, the Student Assn. lobbied key administrators in opposition to it.


  The change is likely to please some corporate recruiters. But Amy Hyatt of Boston-based Mercer Management Consulting (MMC ) says access to grades is only one part of assessing a candidate. "We do ask for a transcript as part of our required application materials, however, the grades don't play nearly as big a role in our decision as the résumé does," says Hyatt.

Some investment banks, however, won't even consider going to schools where students can be tight-lipped about their grades. Nondisclosure prevents recruiters from judging success in coursework that's directly relevant to the job, says Chip Rae, director of recruiting at SG Cowen, a New York-based investment-banking firm that won't recruit on campuses with nondisclosure policies. "It has created this conflict between recruiters and candidates that is so unnatural," he adds.

Still, HBS graduates have had little trouble finding jobs. Ninety-four percent of them last year reported accepting a job offer by graduation, with 96% taking a position three months out of school.


  The change was a long time coming, say administrators. Richard Ruback, chairman of the MBA program and senior associate dean at HBS, says the reversal was initiated internally and that it has been in the making since before the recent departure of ex-Dean Kim Clark. Clark even penned an editorial in the HBS weekly newspaper, The Harbus, last week to voice his support of disclosure.

The change may also please HBS alumni who think the MBA program lacks rigor without grade disclosure. "Most alums who are active in the business community were here before grade nondisclosure, and they thought it was wonderfully collaborative," says Ruback.

The debate about whether to disclose grades is one that currently roils many B-school campuses (see BW, 9/12/05, "Campus Confidential"). At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, faculty members have complained that grade nondisclosure has not only decreased competition but encouraged laziness, even causing some star faculty members to avoid teaching MBAs. In the Apr. 18 edition of Wharton's weekly newspaper, the Wharton Journal, Vice-Dean Anjani Jain blamed nondisclosure for a gradual shift away from academic rigor.


  Until a few days ago, Harvard was one of a few top programs with a nondisclosure policy that actually prohibited students from sharing their transcripts with recruiters. Its new policy now will more closely mirror that of some of its peer schools, including the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which give students the ultimate choice about whether to reveal their grades to recruiters.

Being able to share grades will be a blessing for some MBA candidates. "It makes perfect sense for those who are trying to change professions and need a good score in certain courses to want to demonstrate that," says Alex Michael, co-president of the HBS Student Assn. Some of the more diligent and systematic recruiters, like investment banks and consulting firms, will undoubtedly ask for a transcript, he adds. And that may leave some students with no real choice in the matter.


Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Phil Mintz

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