Last week, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School tied for first place with Harvard Business School (HBS) in U.S. News & World Report’s closely watched annual ranking of top MBA programs in the nation. Though Wharton has only claimed the top spot once before in the ranking’s 28-year history, it has traditionally been considered part of the “holy trinity” of schools, behind only HBS and Stanford Graduate School of Business in many people’s eyes. That made last year’s fourth-place finish after the University of Chicago Booth School of Business a real blow and this year’s strong showing an important rebound.
Speaking to Clear Admit on the heels of the ranking’s release, Wharton Deputy Vice Dean for Admissions, Financial Aid & Career Management Maryellen Reilly reflected on the recognition, suggesting that while nice to have, it wasn’t cause for huge celebration at the school. “It is always great to get that kind of recognition among our peer schools, but I manage the team by really encouraging them to produce their best every day,” she said. “The rankings are all so diverse and all look at so many data points that it is really hard to ‘teach to the test’ with any of them,” she continued. Rather, Wharton just tries to lead and innovate every day, she added.
Contributing to this year’s improved performance in the U.S. News ranking were Wharton’s strong employment and pay figures. Some 85.6 percent of graduates seeking jobs were employed at graduation—up from 80.8 percent last year—which put the Philadelphia school ahead of HBS, Stanford and Booth. Three months out from graduation, 95.5 percent of Wharton students seeking jobs had landed them, up from 93.5 percent a year ago. To boot, the school’s reported average salary—$155,058—also exceeded all others and represented a 5.7 percent year-over-year gain.
Naysayers Question Wharton’s Ascent
Nevertheless, some naysayers viewed the No. 1 result with skepticism, suggesting that because Wharton had lower student response rates—92 percent as compared to 99 percent or higher at other top schools—the school might be gaming the ranking.
“I think it is unfortunate that they took that view of the accomplishment because I don’t think it reflects our students or our staff,” Reilly said. “That approach is not reflective of what the ranking shows.”
Conceding that the number of Wharton students who failed to report their employment status has risen in recent years—reaching 65 this year out of a class of 850, up from 52 last year and 55 the year before—Reilly pointed out that submissions are entirely voluntary and that the school hasn’t changed how it seeks responses. “We ask all our students to respond and have tools in place for them to use to do so,” she said. “It fell to 92 percent this year, but it is what it is—I think it is fairly cyclical.”
Another criticism leveled at Wharton in the wake of last week’s announcement was that the percentage of students who are not seeking jobs at graduation—either because they are pursuing a startup or returning to an employer who sponsored them—has jumped to 25 percent of the class, up from 13 percent a decade ago. “I think there are a number of reasons for that—including that lots of our students are now engaged in entrepreneurial ventures,” Reilly said.
Increased Opportunities for Entrepreneurs
Today, Wharton features 30 classes that touch on entrepreneurial endeavors, seven different departments teaching courses having to do with entrepreneurship or startups and 20 percent of students who choose to major in entrepreneurship, Reilly said. “That’s in addition to our semester in San Francisco, which has been covered at great length and is really well responded to by students—they love it.”
Indeed, since the 2008 crash, Wharton has made a concerted effort to diversify into the startup and technology spaces to offer alternatives to the traditional banking path that so many Wharton graduates had previously pursued. “One of the changes we made a few years back was moving to a more flexible curriculum that allows us to give students a more diversified experience in the classroom,” explained Reilly. “We followed that in career management to develop a number of different relationships in industry areas where companies might only hire one to five students a year,” she added. The school also now features a new SAIL classroom (structured, active, in class, learning) allowing students to interact with each other and faculty in a way that allows for innovation and collaboration in a less traditional classroom setting.
Asked what steps the school has taken to help Wharton fare better in the rankings—U.S. News’ or others—Reilly had this to say: “Don’t get me wrong—it is a real privilege to be tied with HBS for number one, and we are in really good company—but we would rather spend our energy innovating around the student experience.” Recent innovations have included the launch of networking events in New York City and San Francisco for companies that might not come to campus, a new matching process for students going into investment banking and increased focus on helping students better understand the tools they have to pay for their degree. “There are a lot of things that we are doing that are about making our school and our program better, and I’d rather spend our energy on that than on trying to game the rankings.”
That said, rankings do still provide a valuable means for her staff to see where they are relative to other schools. “Some [rankings] focus on placement data, student satisfaction, curriculum, whatever it might be—it’s great for us to have those goal posts, but even without them we are always thinking about how to innovate,” she said.
Of course, Reilly also hopes the strong showing in U.S. News—coming just before many Round 2 applicants will face a choice of which school to attend in the fall—will have a positive impact on enrollment. “But I think it’s important that students go where they are going to have the best overall experience,” she said. As she sees it, rankings should help applicants most in the early stages of their decision making. “They can be especially valuable as you are starting to think about putting your target list of schools together,” she said. “When it comes down to making the decision of where to go once you’ve been admitted, though, you want to go to the place where you will have the most impactful experience, where you feel the most at home, where the community will be most supportive of what you want to do.”
On the Future of the TBD
While we had her attention, we took the opportunity to ask Reilly about a few other topics, including how satisfied she and her team are with the school’s unique team-based discussion (TBD) component within the application process. “We are really happy with it,” she said enthusiastically, although she is continually surprised to hear applicants worry about how to prepare for it. “We really want them to just come in and be themselves—the only prep you need to do is give a little thought to the prompt and then come in and interact,” she said. “It is not something we want them to fret over, but we really do like what we learn from it in terms of how they will be when they are here working on teams. It gives us a chance to see a part of the student that we don’t see in the application.”
As for any changes under consideration, one might be to communicate a more relaxed dress code, she said. “Right now, 99 percent of applicants will show up to the TBD in a suit and tie, which I find remarkable,” she said. Going forward, applicants should look for some more specific guidelines in terms of what they need to wear.
Her team is also exploring ways to deliver more of a glimpse of the overall Wharton experience to TBD participants, both those who come to campus and those who take part in hub cities. On campus, these include having current students and admissions fellows participate in scheduled activities and offering more opportunities for students to visit a class and have lunch with members of the community. In hub cities, meanwhile, the school is bringing groups of alumni together in the evenings to meet with applicants to share more about the school and the program. “We really want applicants to get a feel for the community and the campus that you can’t get from a website.”
On Trump’s Impact, Exciting Things on the Horizon
Asked about how the impact of a Trump presidency has played out at the commander-in-chief’s alma mater—whether his association with the school has been more of a boon or a liability—Reilly chose not to comment.
But on what she’s most excited about in the near term at the school, she offered an enthusiastic response. “This time of year at Wharton is so much fun for all of us because it’s when the students start all of their performances—the Wharton Follies, the Fashion Show, the Spring Gala, the Battle of the Bands, Fight Night,” she rattled off. “The students really come together, they bring talents that we don’t necessarily recruit them for and they put on these amazingly high-quality productions,” she said. “It is definitely my favorite time of year because we get to see a side of them that is not about their careers, the classroom, or working with a student club. What we get in return—the talents these students bring—is remarkable.”