Posted by: Louis Lavelle on October 4, 2011
For many years, students at elite business schools have prohibited themselves from disclosing their grades to recruiters. Of the top ten full-time MBA programs in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2010 ranking, seven have or had some form of grade nondisclosure. These aren’t the dictates of some secrecy-obsessed dean; these are self-imposed bans. At those schools and many others, the class has voted to implement a policy, and it’s up individual students to honor it. Most do, and recruiters, while they’re not big fans, generally go along.
The idea behind these policies was that by freeing students from the tyranny of grades they would encourage students to take more challenging courses and play nice with each other, fostering an environment of cooperation in what might otherwise be a cutthroat competition for grades and jobs.
Turns out that’s a load of hooey, at least according to a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Daniel Gottlieb and Kent Smetters, two professors at Wharton, where grade nondisclosure has long been a point of contention between students and faculty, report that the “levels of curriculum effort” found in student surveys conducted in the wake of nondisclosure policies show the policies didn’t help, and may have even hurt.
Without grades, they wrote, students have little incentive to work hard and come to class prepared. At Wharton, for example, the amount of time spent on academics fell by 22 percent in the first four years after grade nondisclosure was implemented, and course selection by students was unchanged.
They found the argument that grade nondisclosure fosters cooperation equally unpersuasive. Students compete for grades against a small circle of classmates, they noted, but compete for jobs against the entire class.
The authors raise some interesting questions, such as why grade nondisclosure policies exist only at business schools (but not law, medicine, and accounting), and only at top tier business schools at that. You would think that if the policies had all the benefits advocates attribute to them, they would have been more widely adopted, but they're not. Their conclusion: highly ranked business programs--where in the absence of grades everyone gets the benefit of the doubt, and where in the absence of minimum certification requirements slackers will never get caught--are probably the only place in the ivory tower where something like grade nondisclosure can flourish.
All of which raises another question: is it time for elite business schools to abandon grade nondisclosure?