Wharton: Preserve of Privilege?

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on August 8, 2011

The web site Poets & Quants published an interesting story today about the incoming class at Wharton, based on exhaustive online research. It has some important insights into how business schools operate, but may not go far enough to prove its main thesis: that Wharton has a bias that favors applicants from prestigious undergraduate institutions and top companies. (More on this later.) But I urge you to read it in order to make up your own mind.

When describing each new incoming class, b-schools typically report a few statistics in the aggregate (average GMAT scores, for example) and not much else. But in fact much more extensive information, such as the employment and undergraduate histories of students, is hidden in plain sight, on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, if anyone took the trouble to collect it.

P&Q, the business school web site launched a year ago by former Businessweek.com editor John Byrne, did. It combed through the Facebook page for the Wharton Class of 2013 and identified more than 600 of its 845 members, or more than 70 percent. It then tracked their undergraduate educational backgrounds and their pre-MBA employers. As a journalistic exercise this is, I think, unprecedented. By mapping the origins of almost an entire class at a single school P&Q intends to show how schools like Wharton—schools that accept applicants from elite institutions and produce graduates destined for the highest echelons of corporate power—serve to perpetuate privilege rather than level the economic playing field.

What P&Q found: A relatively small group of undergraduate institutions act as feeder schools for the elite MBA program, and a large portion of the 2013 class is from a handful of employers, particularly McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm that's also a top employer of MBA grads at Wharton and elsewhere. "What the data shows is that admissions at Wharton is something of a name game, in which the doors to graduates of less prestigious companies and schools are either less open or completely closed," Byrne writes. "The upshot: many highly qualified applicants appear to be getting squeezed out because they went to a state school, worked for a no-name company, or lacked the connections to have someone important put a good word in for them."

How bad is it? Well, you decide. P&Q found that 25 feeder schools account for two-thirds of the entire class, and that 23 percent of the class has undergraduate diplomas from just four Ivy League schools - University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. While the top 25 include a number of well-known state institutions, none of the members of the 2013 class hailed from Arizona State, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State - four of the country's largest public universities.

About 27 percent of the class came to Wharton after stints at just a dozen top companies. Nearly one in five had put in time at McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley. As one MBA admissions consultant, Sanford Kreisberg, is quoted as saying: "You are not getting into Harvard Business School or Wharton from the local bakery or real estate office."

Wharton's deputy director of admissions, Ankur Kumar, told P&Q that Wharton accepted students from about 250 undergraduate institutions, adding that a position at an elite firm is "by no means...a prerequisite" for admission.

I read the P&Q piece, an embargoed copy of which was shared with Bloomberg Businessweek prior to publication, with a skeptical eye. It reads a bit like an obituary for the idea of meritocracy, but I don't think the data show what P&Q thinks it does.

To prove that Wharton discriminates against applicants from no-name schools and obscure companies, you need to show at least two things: that Wharton received applications from qualified applicants with those credentials and that fewer won admission than those from top-tier schools and companies. If Wharton received 100 qualified applicants from Harvard and accepted 50, but got two from Kingsborough Community College in New York and accepted one, was anyone wronged? I don't think so.

I think few readers will be surprised to learn that a school like Wharton has an admissions bias toward applicants whose outsized ambition and talents got them into well-known mostly private schools and elite firms. Fewer still would be outraged by that fact, especially those who pay a small fortune to go there precisely because they believe they will be studying alongside some of the smartest, most talented people in the world. For most, that's why they applied there in the first place.

Reader Comments


August 8, 2011 2:47 PM



August 8, 2011 11:41 PM

I don't see what the problem is with this... The best business schools have the right, and I would suggest the RESPONSIBILITY, to choose the top applicants. Does it surprise anyone that the top applicants with the best scores and GPAs work at the most selective, highest-paying companies and went to Ivy league school? Doesn't surprise me at all.

The real problem is the people that get in because of racial or other "diversity related" considerations... that's what's unfair and should be stopped.

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