Should Top B-Schools Disclose Grades?

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?


Reader Comments

tianlong

October 4, 2011 9:39 PM

The policy can benefit students for a while ,Nevertheless ,to corporations which need ranking policies to chose their staffs ,it will bring out troubles .

marik

October 4, 2011 11:17 PM

Maybe all the students get A's and if that were disclosed, they would all look average.

K

October 5, 2011 12:36 AM

Is there any sort of punishment for sharing your grades with employers?

If I've earned a good GPA I'd like to tell the world. That's what they're there for. It's disappointing to see elite schools try to pretend that all students are equal once they're admitted, when they're definitely not.

I bet this practice is partly in place just to cover up the barely-passing GPAs of the children of billionaires who pay their way in (I've seen documentaries where said billionaire children flat out admit in interviews that this sort of bribery is happening at these top-tier business schools)

NotABabyBoomer

October 5, 2011 6:27 AM

Recently graduating from a ranked business school that does disclose grades; it is cut throat, but unnecessarily so. I think if we're talking about incentives to do well; nothing is more of a turn off then busting your ass at school, perhaps accumulating debt in the processs and there be no jobs for you when you come out. If I could do it again, I would absolutely try less.

Clint

October 5, 2011 1:18 PM

No to be nit-picky but the USC Keck school of Medicine does not assign grades for their medical curriculum.
See: http://www.usc.edu/dept/publications/cat2009/schools/medicine/grading_evaluation.html

I believe that many other medical schools are the same way, or use pass/fail systems. Its a mechanism of their profession so that no one can challenge a graduates credibility, just because they were bottom 10% of their class. Medical schools recognize that accuracy professional judgment is not a function of grades.

That said there are huge differences between medical and business school students, among them what motivates their pursuit of advanced study in the first place.

Given medical schools expense, duration, and low initial pay (residency) no rational person would go there just for the money. Medical school students are mostly intrinsically motivated.

A much greater mix of b-school students though are motivated by money, and whereas medical school teaches you an established profession, b-school goals/outcomes are more varied and less tied to tradition.

As far as the effect of non-disclosure of grades: Its no wonder b-school students would "invest" less of their effort in areas of less "value" to them.

JB

October 5, 2011 2:07 PM

The purpose of business school is to further your career. Classes and academics play an important role in this only if they help with a student's recruiting prospects. Grade non-disclosure allows students to focus more of their time on recruiting, which is how it should be. They still need to know what they're learning in class - interviewers will most certainly make sure their future employees have all of the base knowledge necessary to succeed in that particular role.

J2

October 7, 2011 12:04 AM

Clint,

USC is an exception. The large majority of medical schools (including the top 5) all disclose grades and med school grades are very important for residency programs.

BVS

October 9, 2011 1:45 AM

One of my prof used to put it this way - even when you stop disclosing grades, you still compete with the batch for the same jobs, and hence to differentiate yourselves from the batch you start looking out for some ridiculous things to write on your CVs and hence fight for random PORs(Positions of Responsibilities) and participate in random competitions off the classroom, while you should have had a clean and healthy competition inside the classroom... But once you leave the decision of disclosing or not to the individuals, it becomes beneficial for each individual to disclose his GPA, as non disclosure would indicate a very bad GPA...a GPA poorer than his actual GPA...

Recent Grad

October 9, 2011 5:09 PM

Grades should not be a focus of anyone. Why? Because standards vary from school to school and from class to class. Two students could both be 4.0's from the same university but have very different set of classes as part of their experience. Grades are worthless.

BW's Louis Lavelle

October 10, 2011 12:02 PM

I would love to hear from some recruiters who have encountered grade nondisclosure. In the absence of grades, how do they know the person they're interviewing has a grasp of the material? How do they even decide who to interview, or (for that matter) know if the person sitting across from them is at the top of his/her class or on the verge of flunking out? I suppose if you view the purpose of an MBA as recruiting, as JB does, then sure, I can see how you would think grades are an unnecessary distraction. But last time I checked, they don't give you a degree for meeting with recruiters. The degree represents to the outside world that you learned something. If you're a recruiter and you want some assurances that the person has learned something, grades, as imperfect as they are, accomplish that.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

Taylor O

October 12, 2011 9:37 PM

I'm currently a second year at a school without such a non-disclosure policy (University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management). I would argue in favor of one. Each particular firm has it's own way of determining a qualified candidate in an interview by *gasp* asking questions and using their own evaluation techniques like consulting cases or financial tests. GPA is a poor substitute.

At even medium ranked schools students are generally A level undergraduates already combined with the fact they are specialists in their fields. This ranking game is putting CFAs at the advantage in Finance class, CPAs in Accounting, etc. etc. This unique problem to MBAs multi-discplinary setup is not suited to the bell curve.

Are we really concerned about differentiating based on a handful of answers on their exam ie they missed a couple types of Oligopolies on their econ test? With recruiting pressure to have extremely high GPAs this leads to a never ending increase in hours and pressure to one up each other. Are we really learning more useful knowledge in this case or are we just hurting ourselves physically and mentally?

Perhaps oral discussion with a well rounded individual articulating their experience, knowledge, professional goals and passion would do better?

BW's Louis Lavelle

October 13, 2011 9:45 AM

Good points Taylor O, but let me suggest a couple of things. Being an A level undergrad 5-6 years ago doesn't make you an A level MBA student. You suggest that it's wrong to differentiate between candidates based on a handful of answers on an exam, but that it's perfectly ok to do so based on consulting cases or financial tests administered by recruiters. GPA doesn't measure just a handful of answers, it's a measure of every test and every instance of class participation in every course you take...in my view a far better measure of ability than one case/test/interview administered by a recruiter. Interviews and grades serve two different purposes-grades represent a neutral 3rd party measuring your performance, interviews are all about you putting your best foot forward. Lastly, you had disclosable grades throughout your undergrad career, your performance at work was evaluated every year prior to your MBA, and after your MBA your performance will be measured again--a lifetime of evaluation. Why should b-school be the one exception to that?

While this may sound like I'm an advocate for eliminating grade nondisclosure, it's really just that I haven't heard any persuasive arguments for keeping it--if I do, I'd be more than happy to change my mind. My main point in writing the blog post was to raise the issue. Sometimes when things go on for so long we tend to do them automatically, without bothering to consider if we should or shouldn't. I hope the blog post triggers a debate at schools with nondisclosure about whether it serves any real purpose at all. Thanks again for your comments.

Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek

Post a comment

 

About

Read daily reports from BusinessWeek editors and reporters Louis Lavelle, Geoff Gloeckler, Alison Damast and Francesca Di Meglio and boost your chances of getting into your best-fit B-school.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!