Earlier today Wharton announced that Director of Admissions Ankur Kumar will step down from her post effective this Friday, October 4. Kumar’s resignation comes after a week of the school being absolutely pummeled in the press in the wake of Wharton’s application volume dropping as most other top MBA programs announce year-over-year gains in applications.
Admissions officers come and go, but what makes this news so surprising is that it comes in the middle of the busiest time of year in MBA admissions. In fact, the news broke just a day after Wharton’s Round 1 admissions deadline passed (though Kumar reportedly told her team about her pending resignation last week). Presumably the school wanted to wait until this deadline passed before making the announcement, although we doubt that droves of applicants would have decided not to click “Submit,” after weeks and weeks of hard work on their Wharton applications, just because of the news.
More broadly, we’re fascinated by how quickly Wharton has gone from a member of the Holy Trinity of American business schools — it’s the school most frequently mentioned after Harvard Business School and Staford GSB — to a fusty, old MBA program that is completely out of step with the times. Yes, Wharton has seen a 12% decline in applications over the past four years, while other prominent schools have been crowing about year-over-year gains this past admissions season (the first year of gains in a few years, for many schools), but if there were a future market where one could buy and sell the fortunes of MBA programs, we’d be buying low right now. In fact, we really are willing to bet money that Wharton’s application volume will show a larger-than-average jump in 2013-2014 (partly because it’s coming off a lower base), and many outlets will publish “Wharton Is Back!” headlines about nine months from now.
Forgetting what might happen next year, why did Wharton’s application volume drop? Take a close look at the left-hand graph that accompanies this Wall Street Journal article… Wharton’s application volume was mostly tracking along with that of its peer schools until this past year, when Wharton dropped some more while other top schools reported modest increases. What changed? An obvious culprit is the team-based interview (aka “team discussion“), which Wharton piloted in the 2011-2012 admissions season and then officially rolled out in 2012-2013. That was a big change to an admissions process that hasn’t changed very much over the past several decades.
Many are brushing off the school’s mention of this as an attempt to cover up some sort of bigger bungling by the Wharton administration, but the team discussions were what we immediately thought of was soon as the news broke about Wharton’s application numbers. It’s not hard to see the team discussions scaring off more casual candidates to the tune of a 5-10% drop in applications. If that’s in fact what happened, then it’s also easy to believe Wharton’s argument that applicant quality is still excellent — if you’re only scaring away the less serious applicants, then your overall numbers will suffer, but you will still like the looks of the people who do apply.
Surely there’s some spin coming out of Philadelphia as Wharton calls in the PR crisis team and tries to get everyone talking about its drop in application volume, but we don’t see why this reason isn’t at least a large drive — and probably the largest driver — of Wharton’s drop in application numbers. And we envy the person who will step into Kumar’s role, because he or she will almost certainly be featured prominently in those “Wharton Is Back!” articles in 2014. (Tip to Wharton’s new Director of Admissions: Ditch the team-based discussions for an even bigger bump in application volume!)
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