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MBA Insider: Admissions Q&A

Vanderbilt: A Small School with Big Ambitions

John Roeder has been part of the admissions team at Vanderbilt's Owen School Management (Owen Full-Time MBA Profile) since 2003—meaning he's witnessed roughly one-sixth of the program's lifetime.

Founded in 1969, Owen is much younger than most top schools. Still, it has progressed rapidly, rising from humble beginnings to BusinessWeek's top 30 ranking in just a few decades. These days, it shows no signs of stopping. In the few years after Roeder arrived, Owen has seen a jump in selectivity, and the introduction of a health-care MBA that boasts former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as a teacher. That's not to say the small Southern business school doesn't have its work cut out for it, though, especially as it stares down a cut-throat job market and a crisis on Wall Street—a favorite Vanderbilt job destination.

In a conversation with BusinessWeek's Anne VanderMey, Roeder talks about the enduring value of an Owen MBA and life in Nashville, and offers a few tips about getting in. An edited portion of their conversation follows.

When you started as Owen's admissions director three years ago, you were pretty pro-active about adding ways for prospective students to virtually connect with the campus—online chats and that sort of thing. How has that push been going and what's come out of it?

Actually, on the admissions side, we have backed off from doing anything along the lines of online outreach and blogs. Our students kind of ran with that and took it on their own. There's a club here at Owen called the Owen Bloggers. It's a site that the students have created where they talk about their experiences here at Owen on a regular basis, about classes, about life in Nashville, about whatever it may be. This is absolutely outside the sphere of influence of admissions or the administration. They're free to do what they want and say what they want. It's a real honest picture into the life of an MBA student as they go through the program. There are alums that are actually on there blogging as well.

So, there's really no use in having the admissions version of that, the one that we've edited, which many schools have out there. I think as a prospective student you can tell if those sorts of things are being edited or policed. So we've backed off on providing that directly out of admissions because we think that the students themselves can provide a much more direct and honest opinion. Many of our prospective students are able to interact with current students through

Speaking of getting to know the school, I've never really thought of Nashville as a college town. What's it like as a campus?

We're located just about a mile south of downtown Nashville. Vanderbilt University as a whole is a big part of the Nashville community, especially the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which serves a good portion of the Southeast. Right now as far as the city goes, a lot of the economic development is focused in health care, as well as the automotive and entertainment industries. There's entertainment here well beyond just the country music experience.

I think the students who come really do take advantage of being in Nashville while they're here. We typically have 70 different project-related courses where you can take what you're learning in the classroom and apply it to an actual company or organization that's here in the Nashville area. You work as a team of Owen students for course credit and you're typically presenting back to C-level employees at the end of the semester or module, and really making a difference within their organization. You also have the ability to step into a different industry. A number of the projects are nonprofit organizations that could never afford to hire full-time MBAs or external consultants. Students have the ability to make an impact in that sense.

As for Nashville itself, its proximity to most major markets in the U.S. really is an advantage. Most of our students don't work in the Southeast post-MBA. Most of our students don't come from the Southeast before the MBA program. Many of the students interview with firms from Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York and D.C. We're in a great position in that you're essentially within a two-hour flight of markets like Dallas and Chicago and Atlanta and New York and Boston and Philadelphia. So much of the U.S. is very accessible from where we are. Many of our students will fly off to New York for the weekend and go do interviews and come back down.

We also have the advantage of having a low cost of living here in Nashville. For the two years that you're a full-time MBA student your life has to change—you may have been used to going out to very nice high-end restaurants on a regular basis and making a lot of trips—but as you start an MBA you start to have to watch your budget more closely. I think that many of our students coming from the West Coast and the Northeast see the value in having a very reasonable cost of living over the course of the time that they're in an MBA program.

And I think the music industry does a lot for this city. It brings in a lot of money. Essentially, you're talking about the ability for a town our size to have some of the amenities that we have—from high-end restaurants, to high-end shopping, to professional sports, to the various music acts that come through here. A lot of that is here solely because of the entertainment industry that's here in Nashville.

Is the country music really as good as they say it is?

I'm not a huge country music fan, but I like the fact that most major acts that are not country will come through here and they'll play small venues that you never would expect a major artist to play. While they're playing large arenas in other cities, in Nashville they play in a place called the Ryman Auditorium, which is in downtown Nashville in an old church with wooden pews. It was the old home of the Grand Ole Opry. When you can go and go see a major artist come through town, it's really a lot of fun to see live music in a venue like that. I'll date myself, but seeing bands like R.E.M. or the Killers come and play a tiny venue, it's a totally different experience than you might see in a larger town where you're going to a large arena.

You mentioned that most students don't work in the Southeast after graduation. Still, I'm looking at the 2008 BusinessWeek survey and it says that in North America, about 54% of Vanderbilt MBAs go on to work somewhere in the South more generally. How does the school tackle recruiting in the other locations you mentioned?

Not being the director of career management, I'm not the expert in that area, but I do know that we have various programming that's available on the career management side that's focused on getting students into markets on the West Coast and the Northeast and other parts of the U.S. There are things like the West Coast Forum, where we take our students out to the Bay Area to interview with a number of firms up and down the West Coast, from Starbucks (SBUX) and Microsoft (MSFT) up in Seattle, to Mattel (MAT), to Google (GOOG). Students have access to companies that may be on the West Coast but which might not necessarily come to Nashville to do on-campus recruiting. They still have the ability to get into those organizations through the West Coast Forum.

We also have what's called Wall Street Week up in New York where all of our finance students spend a week during their first or second module visiting with various banking institutions. They spend the week learning about jobs and positions and networking, and they get a chance to get a better picture of opportunities available up there. That way, when the various firms are coming back to recruit on campus, some of the students will hopefully have already even met some of the individuals who are coming to do the interviews.

We have a very aggressive career management center. Especially in a tough economy you have to be aggressive. You have to take advantage of the relationships that are out there. I know that over the last few months we've reached out to more than 400 different companies and specifically targeted various companies where we have alums. Our alumni are very active in hiring out of this program, which I think is to our advantage in a tougher economy when the on-campus recruiting model is a little tougher these days. More companies are pulling back on that, so the ability to utilize that alumni network has really been to our advantage.

I've been able to watch some of the statistics reflecting what's going on right now and we're holding our own with the top 20 programs in the country, according to BusinessWeek, with regard to the offers that our students are getting. I think a lot of that goes back to having a very, very aggressive career management center and dean who are visible and who are very much out there drumming up opportunities for students.

Looking at those numbers, about 83% of students found jobs last year. In 2007 it was a little less, so it actually looks like the school has been improving. How do you expect those numbers to hold up this year?

We're hoping to continually improve upon that. We actually had a new director of career management who came in at about the same time I came in on the admissions side, and she's certainly made a difference [on] those sorts of numbers.

In the past about a quarter of students went on to jobs in Wall Street, where the crisis has hit hard, do you have any idea how that number might change?

There's still a strong interest in finance so I would expect that that interest is going to continue. Perhaps the actual positions that students are looking for within the financial sector will change. We're set up where we have essentially three finance tracks: a portfolio management track, a real estate finance track, and a corporate finance track. I think you're finding that some of the folks who may have been interested in the portfolio management track may be more interested in the corporate finance track because there may be more positions available right now in that area. Now, two years from now when many of the students are graduating, it could be a totally different story as to what's going to be available.

The other area that has certainly blossomed over the past year or two is health care. We launched a health-care MBA program about five years ago and we're seeing very strong interest and increased applications. Students looking to be in health care right now have a lot of opportunities available to them. We have the opportunity to affect an industry that is in our own backyard—there are more than 300 different health-care companies based here in Nashville. It's really providing a lot of opportunities for some of our students who maybe even enter the MBA program not planning on focusing on that industry. While they're here they see all the opportunities that are available in that area.

We have some pretty amazing faculty who are on board here who have been shaping health care for the last few years. For example, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is teaching a class to business students and fourth-year medical students looking at the financing and delivery and the quality of health care. We also have Jim Cooper, who's very involved in the health care policy of the Obama Administration. He's teaching health-care policy as well.

We actually take our second-year students to D.C. and they spend a week in D.C. learning about health-care policy and networking. There's going to be a lot of opportunity in that area, I think our students see it. So it's one of those things where you can come in with a background in finance, or in consulting, or in another area, transition to a focus on health care, and come out of the MBA program really being able to make an impact in that industry. That's the focus of about 20% of our incoming class next year.

How has interest changed over the last couple years since it was introduced?

It's certainly increased. Last year we had about 25 health-care MBAs come into the program. This year we have about 35 coming into the program. We've seen a pretty good increase coming here in the past year, and over the course of the last five years it's been growing.

But it's still a very small program.

Yes. We don't really intend for it to be larger than 40 students out of an incoming class of about 190 MBAs.

Is it more competitive than the rest of the program?

I think the numbers are pretty similar to the general incoming MBA population.

How did the class with Bill Frist go?

From what I heard from the current students who had gone through it, they said it was an amazing experience to hear about policy from someone who's really helped shape it, who has behind-the-scenes knowledge and a lot of insight into what's going to be happening in that industry in the future. I think as you look at the overall curriculum within the health-care MBA program, you really can't talk about health care without talking about that policy piece.

The class of 2008 was reported to be the most academically qualified in the school's history. Is Owen generally becoming more selective?

The selectivity rate for this past year was around 36%. I think when I first started here it was around 68%. So over time we've really been able to become more selective and bring in a stronger quality class each year. That's our goal each year—to improve upon the previous year.

We've filled our class for this fall and we already see that we're going to continue to improve upon the previous year and we're very excited about that. I think that it's a real benefit because a key factor in coming into any MBA program is the quality of students who are surrounding you in that classroom. You have the opportunity to learn so much from those individuals, so having strong backgrounds and work experience is a key element.

Although we've seen an increase in younger applications to the program, I can tell you that still only 4% of our incoming class has two years or less full-time work experience, and typically those students are JD/MBAs or MD/MBAs. We really do value that work experience coming in because those students are going to be able to contribute more in the classroom. And as corporate recruiters come in to take a look at our graduating students, they're going to have some very strong résumés to look at and some very strong interviews. One of the statistics that's never really reported out there is the average interview score of these candidates, and we've seen that increasing over time as well.

How many interviews have you personally done over the last few months?

Probably about 200.

In those interviews, were there any questions from applicants that stood out as particularly good that you can remember?

I think that the questions that stand out most are probably the questions that are more personal about a student's particular situation. If they're an international student moving to the U.S. for the first time with a family, they might ask about what services are provided here at Owen that might allow their spouse or their kids to integrate into the culture. Students also often ask about the alumni. I think often there's not enough information on our Web sites about what are the alumni doing or whether they're in specific areas geographically or functionally. That kind of question usually gives me an opportunity to talk specifically about particular alums who are in the fields that those students are looking to go into. Often, after the interview I'll put the student in touch with those alums. The best way for them to learn is on the front end, and really to interact with the alumni and current students and faculty. It gives the student an opportunity to take it to another level and to another step after the interview process.

How often do you put students in touch with alumni? Is that common?

If there's a common element in their background I'll certainly put students in touch with particular alums that I know well. Again, having the advantage of now having been here for six years and knowing alums who are in cities across the U.S. I have a pretty good knowledge of who's doing what and where and who might be a good contact for a particular candidate. Then, at that point, we can actually get some feedback from the alumni themselves if they end up meeting up with the candidate or interacting with the candidate over the phone.

So it might not be a bad strategic move for the candidate.


What is the school doing in terms of financial aid?

In terms of financial aid for the international students, it's a much tougher road because as an incoming student you have to have a U.S. co-signer to get the loans. As far as the domestic students, I really haven't seen any difference this year vs. previous years in students' abilities to secure financial aid. We typically do award scholarships to incoming students on the front end based upon their background and their application or interview. Vanderbilt is a private school and tuition is close to $42,000 a year. A scholarship is important. About half the students coming to our program are on some sort of merit-based scholarship award.

Do you have a no-cosigner loan program for international students?

We're actually in the process of developing that program right now. We're working on having something approved here at Vanderbilt University as a whole. But we realize that's a significant factor in many international students being able to come here to Owen. We do provide a significant number of scholarships and we have specific scholarships like the European Business Scholars Program or the Latin American Business Scholars Program, where if the student's coming from that part of the world they're going to be considered for those particular scholarship awards.

Is it true that the Owen School of Management opened in 1969 with 10 students and 10 faculty members in a former funeral home?

That's absolutely true. And we still have some faculty who were there when it opened. I had a gentleman by the name of Dewey Daane in my office the other day. This is an amazing, amazing individual who was there in the beginning and is still on staff here. He was appointed by John F. Kennedy to the Federal Reserve Board and he's been a chaired professor here at Owen since, I think, the early '70s. This is a guy who regularly plays tennis with Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, and he brings these types of names into the classroom. Volcker was just here a couple weeks ago. He's able to have these connections and his entire class, which is a very sought-after course here at Owen. He's bringing in people that over the course of his time and his tenure he's gotten to know quite well. The class has the chance to really interact with some pretty significant individuals.

So, from '69, Owen's a relatively new business school. Many of the MBA programs, many of the top programs, have been around for much, much longer than that. But Dewey's been around for 90 years. He had his 90th birthday party here. We had 400 alums on campus to celebrate; that's also part of the reason Paul Volcker was here. And he's still going. Still going strong.

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