Wharton to Wall Street: A Thing of the Past?

Has Wharton lost it's luster?You’ve probably read the Wall Street Journal article, “What’s Wrong With Wharton?” that suggests that Wharton has “lost its luster.” I’d like to share my thoughts on that, but first, here’s a recap of the article: The article starts with some stats – first and foremost, that Wharton saw a 12% decrease in applications over the past four years, receiving fewer apps than Stanford GSB which has a class half the size of Wharton’s. Wharton’s defense: They’re yield is up. They’re doing a better job attracting the right candidates, more impressive candidates.

The WSJ has a different take: As applicants’ interests shift from finance to entrepreneurship and technology, Wharton hasn’t adapted quickly enough; it is considered “a training ground for Wall Street titans.” Since fewer students are heading toward Gordon Gecko-hood, Wharton has lost its luster. Even the historical Harvard/Stanford/Wharton –frequently abbreviated as H/S/W – triumvirate may not reign anymore. This year, Harvard reported a 3.9% increase in application volume; Stanford saw a 5.8% gain.

Another flaw that the WSJ highlights: the lack of continuity among the school’s leadership, mainly, the fact that Wharton has had four admissions directors in the last ten years. (The admissions directors at Harvard and Stanford have each held their posts for much longer and have been involved in admissions at their respective schools for over 10 years each.)

In a Poets & Quants article in which I was quoted, John Byrne provides some additional stats worth reviewing: 97.8% of the class of 2013 Wharton graduates received job offers within three months of graduating (up from 95.5% last year) with a median base salary of $125,000 (up from $120,000 last year). Overall, Byrne says, “the school had one of the best placement records in the school’s history.” And he continues to say that this year’s class is “arguably its best ever.”

Other points Byrne makes:

  • Wharton admitted a higher percentage of women than did Harvard and Stanford.
  • The decrease in applications this year could be due to the implementation of the new team-based discussion requirement and the fear it may invoke for non-native English speakers.
  • The WSJ article criticizes Wharton for its reduced percentage of graduates who go into investment banking/brokerage houses from a quarter to the teens. But Byrne points out that this drop is a reflection of the changing economy, and not due to the school’s reputation (i.e. the WSJ really isn’t being fair here).
  • This year, 30% of Wharton grads are pursuing careers in consulting. Among incoming students in the Class of 2015, only 4% are seeking investment banking positions. Byrne calls this a “mind-altering shift.”
  • The number of Wharton grads heading up startups has quintupled over the past six years, from 1.5% to 7.7%. (Most schools average 5%.)

My take:

The “What’s Wrong with Wharton” headline is sensationalist and overblown, but it sure got attention. The WSJ get’s an A+ for writing an attention-grabbing, alliterative headline, but given the employment stats I think that P&Q is nailing it by using the undervalued stock metaphor. There is opportunity here for applicants.

I also believe that if Wharton concludes that the TBD is contributing to the decline in apps and an image problem, which will affect its ranking, the TBD, which is a tremendous resource drain, will be short-lived.

Finally, the claim that Wharton’s yield and average GMAT are up so the applicants are doing a better job of self-selecting and the admissions office is doing a better job of attracting the “right” applicants is a great example of focusing on that proverbial silver lining. I’m sure that out of the public eye, Wharton is doing everything it can to part the clouds. Unfortunately, I believe Ankur Kumar’s abrupt resignation reflects more of what’s going on behind the scenes than the positive spin she and Wharton attempted to present publicly.

Let’s go back to my comment about opportunity and the undervalued stock metaphor. With Wharton’s employment numbers, stellar reputation, extensive alumni network, and impressive breadth, you MBA applicants have an opportunity here. As Judy Gruen wrote after our visit to Wharton as part of the AIGAC Conference in June, the Wharton MBA is an incredibly rich and diversified program. It is not just finance. If you are competitive and interested in one of the many fields that Wharton supports, your chances of acceptance to Wharton are better this year than they were last year or five years ago. Don’t believe “the sky is falling” nonsense. Take advantage of the opportunity that this decline in application volume is presenting to you.







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