Admissions Limbo

When College Says Yes But B-School Says No


High school senior Corey Jones is a strong, in-state applicant for the University of Michigan: 3.8 GPA, already taking collegiate accounting courses, and a former athlete on the Traverse City Central High School ski team.

Although Jones might get into the university, he thinks his odds of being accepted directly to Michigan’s Ross School of Business are much slimmer, and that immediately makes U. of M. his No. 2 choice. “If I couldn’t get a business degree I feel like I would have to transfer,” says Jones, who hopes to become a certified public accountant.

Jones’s fears aren’t unfounded. As applications surge and flagship universities in many states become more selective, the effect on their well-known undergraduate business programs is compounded. Some of the most popular state-school business programs are becoming more selective, at a faster rate, than the universities they belong to. The end result is that students who may have been shoe-ins for business degrees at those schools five years ago now face a much higher chance of being edged out to other majors.

“One thing driving more applications to the business school has been the economy. Students are looking more at the practicality of their education,” says Lawrence Mur’ray, director of undergraduate programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business.

TWO CHANCES AT THE MAJOR

Even before the economy tanked in 2008, business was among the most popular degree programs on college campuses. Students often have two chances to get into undergraduate business programs: one as an incoming freshman, and another going into their junior year, when they are evaluated based on their collegiate performance. If the students don’t get in, they must choose another major. As undergrad B-school applications rise, the added pressure gives applicants an extra consideration as they decide where to apply.

“We tell students to think about what is most important to them, the school or the major,” says Bob Gambarelli, director of student services at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va. Gambarelli advises students considering the business programs at the University of Virginia and at Virginia Tech.

Jones, the aspiring accountant in Traverse City, says the major is most important to him. He favors the smaller Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., where admissions officers were impressed by his academic profile, invited him to campus for a personal tour, and assured him that he qualified for direct entry into the accounting program.

SELECTIVITY SKYROCKETS

The reality at the University of Michigan is that the university admitted 41 percent of total applicants in 2011, down from 47 percent in 2006. In other words, it denied admission to 6 percent more applicants over that period.

Ross admitted 23 percent of total applicants (both incoming freshman and juniors), down from 39 percent, over the same period, denying admission to 16 percent more applicants, making it more selective than some top private programs, including Emory and Villanova, and on a par with Cornell, an Ivy League institution.

A similar effect can be seen at UNC Chapel Hill, which denied admission to 1.6 percent more applicants in 2010 than in 2006, compared with 13 percent more who were denied at Kenan-Flagler.

Kenan-Flagler became so exclusive, so fast, that it needed a better method of identifying who should be admitted. In 2009, staff began conducting in-person interviews with every UNC student who applied to the undergraduate business program. The school wanted to acknowledge that “students are more than what they are on a piece of paper,” Mur’ray says.

As a concession to those who were denied admission, Kenan-Flagler also introduced an online business certificate in 2009. That way, students who wanted exposure to general business courses could still get it.

EARLY RESERVATIONS

Only UNC sophomores and juniors can apply to Kenan-Flagler. But in 2009 the university also began inviting the most gifted incoming freshman to reserve a spot in the business program early. As its B-school became more selective, UNC didn’t want its best applicants to pass the university over for other schools that were promising direct admission to their business programs, Mur’ray says.

At Michigan’s Ross, increasing selectivity is in line with the staggering number of applications the school now recieves, says the school’s associate dean of undergraduate programs, Lynn Wooten. One reason for the growth in applications is a weaker economy, which made in-state tuition more attractive, she says. At the same time, services such as the Common Application made it easier for applicants to apply to numerous schools.

Another factor contributing to increased selectivity at state institutions is flat or declining state revenues. Ross, Kenan-Flagler, Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, and the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business are examples of undergraduate B-schools that cap enrollment based on a target student-teacher ratio. This tactic tends to boost selectivity when applications increase, and the B-school isn’t given extra resources to accommodate added students.

“We really have maxed out the size of our school,” says Arthur Allert, assistant dean for undergraduate programs at McCombs. “The only way to get bigger is to have more faculty, and the only way to do that is to have more money, which means the legislature would have to pony up.”

BUDGETARY SQUEEZE

With states facing projected budget shortfalls of more than $100 billion in 2012, cuts in higher education funding in 43 states are likely to continue, according to the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, a Washington (D.C.) think tank.

Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business does not cap enrollment so that it can accommodate the thousands of students that transfer to its main campus each year from 19 satellite campuses across the state. Smeal admits a small portion of incoming freshman, and then anyone who applies going into their junior year who has maintained a certain GPA.

But Smeal, too, has had to be proactive about managing enrollment. The school increased the GPA requirement for finance majors to 3.5 from 3.2 and for other business majors to 3.2 from 3.0 in 2004. Controlling the GPA requirement is the most effective tool Smeal has at its disposal to control class size, says the school’s undergraduate dean, Jim Thomas.

“We have a finite number of faculty. What are we going to do to satisfy demand while maintaining the quality of education that we want to deliver?” he says. “The challenge has been sort of, ‘where do you draw that line?’”

PRESSURE ON STUDENTS

Nina Kryza, class of 2014, arrived at the University of Michigan intending to study oboe performance as a music major. She took, and aced, calculus and economics 101 to keep her options open.

While working part-time on film projects for the Sundance Institute, Kryza felt called to pursue arts-related, nonprofit work and decided a business degree was best for that purpose. Knowing how selective Ross was, Kryza wrote an essay that stressed the quantitative qualities she possessed, but feedback she received from current Ross students prompted her to scrap the essay and start over. “A friend read it and said she didn’t think it was from the heart. She said, ‘I think your BS-ing me,’” Kryza says.

Kryza rewrote the essays emphasizing her passion for work in nonprofits, education, and the arts. She concedes that the process was like applying to college all over again.

Other students are also treating the undergrad B-school application experience as they might traditional college admissions.

Dan Bauer is a business school admissions consultant with the MBA Exchange in Chicago who focuses on getting applicants into graduate business programs. In the past few years he has received eight to 10 requests annually from students applying to undergraduate B-schools, up from one or two requests a year, he says.

“Younger people are starting to think more long-term. I think they see older friends having difficulties advancing in their careers in this economy,” he says. “Naturally, the reaction is, ‘what can I do academically and professionally to be the one who gets that great job?’”

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.
Zlomek is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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