In a recent BusinessWeek article, Francesca Di Meglio and a handful of business schools claim that marketing an MBA for prospective applicants has been tough. Yet, coming off a huge admissions year in 2009, I have a hard time believing business schools are really having difficulty recruiting applicants. Last year, all a B-school had to do was whistle to get hundreds of candidates with sky-high GPAs and GMAT scores, despite the swarm of negative press surrounding business schools at the time. Competition for spots in top schools was so high that getting in felt impossible to many applicants. "No one got into Harvard this year," an applicant told me last spring. "No one." That business schools are now having trouble finding candidates is therefore surprising, if not downright untenable. Di Meglio writes:
It's no wonder that B-schools are casting about for new ways to sell the MBA. After coming off a period of record-breaking application volume and an explosion of new programs at existing B-schools, intensified competition is inevitable.
Wait, what? How does that follow? Why are they "casting about for new ways to sell the MBA," when clearly what they were doing before was working, since they just experienced "record-breaking application volume and an explosion of new programs at existing B-schools"? Granted, she said they were "coming off a period of record-breaking application volume"--yeah, since last year. Unless the "new programs" were, as another Vault editor suggested "based on wildly inaccurate demand projections," which they were not. New sustainability programs, for example, have been very successful and well-received by employers.
Only later on does Di Meglio touch upon the heart of the issue. It's not that business schools are having trouble finding applicants, it's that they're having trouble finding the right kind of applicants. Because jobs are scarce in traditional MBA career paths (i.e., finance and consulting), business schools want students who are going to enter other, nontraditional MBA career paths.
Selling the MBA in this day and age almost requires a redefinition of the purpose of the degree. Until recently, most graduates entered careers in finance or consulting. Today, many students are pursuing their degrees to run nonprofits or solve pressing social problems. Positioning the degree that way appeals to the famously idealistic Millennials, and to anyone willing to entertain alternative career paths in an era when traditional MBA jobs are in short supply.
All right, now I'm on board. Business schools want to recruit students who will be employable after graduation, and that means finding applicants who might not have considered an MBA before. Engineers, scientists, social media gurus--these are all desirable (and employable) MBA students these days. So, sure, it follows that business schools will want to (and have to) try new marketing tactics to reach these potential applicants in "healthy" industries. Moreover, by attracting these students, B-schools position themselves to create contacts in nontraditional industries and help even more graduates get jobs. So it's ultimately about selling themselves to employers. And to that, I say good luck to them.
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