Chicago Booth Tries to Predict Which Applicants Will Get Rich One Day

Things just aren’t the same at business school admissions offices. Some top schools now measure how interested applicants seem so they can accept the ones who are likely to enroll. Many have cut down on required application essays and request self-expression in PowerPoint or video format. Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management announced on Tuesday it would let prospective students sync their LinkedIn profiles with their applications.

These efforts reflect administrators’ desire to engineer the perfect MBA class: a harmonious clan of high-achieving, loyal students.

One top school is getting even more sophisticated: The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business surveys current students about their classmates’ popularity and potential in order to predict who will be the most successful (and wealthiest) after they graduate.

Stacey Kole, deputy dean for the full-time MBA program, says the school will look for patterns in the survey responses to reveal hidden indicators of eventual wealth, job success, and popularity. For the past three years, Booth has asked faculty which students they believe will have the most successful careers. If the survey data show that students with specific educational backgrounds, for instance, are superstars, the results could drive admissions decisions, she says.

“What we’re trying to do is understand potential,” she says. “You know who the successful alumni are, but if you go back and try to predict it, it’s hard.”

The survey spurred a small controversy. After the school asked full-time MBA students in a yearend questionnaire, “Based on your first year experience, who in the Class of 2015 do you hope to take a class with next year?” Kole says her in-box filled up with confused students who asked why the school posed the question. Did they want to know which groups of students were cliquey, especially in the wake of media attention on alleged class and gender divisions at Harvard Business School?

“There was a sense we were trying to figure out the social fiber of the school,” Kole says. But “the intent was to ask, ‘Who spurs your learning? Whose questions, insights, comments provoke you to think deeper?’”

Almost 4,500 people applied to Booth last year to fill a class of about 580. That selectivity creates more pressure to “figure out the stuff that isn’t as obvious in the application,” Kole says.

There’s risk to that approach, says W. Kent Barnds, who writes about national admissions issues and is vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College. He says he respects Booth’s innovation, but cautions that predictive modeling could limit diversity.

“What if your archetype comes out that the people most successful are white men that attend a certain set of colleges? That doesn’t advance what we do in higher education,” he says. “Even with all this data that may predict behavior, there’s still a lot of art we do if we want to reflect the world.”

Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business say their administrators don’t use similar tools. “We’re following the tried-and-true methods we’ve been using for many years—reading and rereading the applications, conducting the interviews, etc.—all done by the professionals on our admissions board,” says Jim Aisner, director of media and public relations at HBS.

Why think about what kind of alum a student will make even before she’s accepted? Alumni giving contributes considerable revenue for top schools, and Booth’s graduates haven’t been giving back en masse. In the 2011-12 school year, after the portion of alums who donated to Booth slipped to 16.8 percent, the school convened a committee to plan initiatives that would boost loyalty, according to that year’s annual report. The committee “identified ways in which the school can strengthen engagement and renew connections among alumni,” boosting its alumni giving rate to 18.6 percent the following year, Booth said in its most recent report.

But turning out deep-pocketed graduates who adore the school is about more than just fundraising, Kole says. “There’s a huge network effect of having strong and satisfied alumni out there,” she says. “The money matters. There are very few schools that run their institutions purely on tuition. But I’m not putting a bigger weight on the cash than having people come and speak or mentor students.”

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