MBA Becomes Ticket to Tomorrow

Everybody, it seems, wants an MBA these days: Wall Street analysts, lawyers, newspaper reporters, English teachers, even Peace Corps volunteers.

The University of Virginia's program recently graduated a principal opera singer and a professional football player. Northwestern University has a nun in its entering class. And Indiana University has a professional soccer player.

With Wall Street booming and businesses demanding advanced experience, graduate business schools from the Ivies on down have been flooded with applications the past three years.

And for the new grads - starting pay that often tops six-figures.

That means fierce competition among the students, especially since schools are not expanding enrollment. Stanford University, for example, received 6,559 applications for this fall's incoming class of 360 students.

"It's a wonderful problem," says Marie Mookini, admissions director for Stanford's master of business administration program. "But it means that many more people will be disappointed."

Confidence gauge

The MBA boom signals positive attitudes about the economy and job market.

Workers feel confident enough to step out of the workplace, knowing a job will likely be waiting when they return. More people also accept responsibility for their own career development and see the MBA as the track to success.

"A lot of young people are deciding that the MBA is going to grant them a ticket to tomorrow," says David Wilson, president of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), an international organization of 131 graduate business schools.

Take Michael Schmitt, who just received his MBA from Boston University. After working at several mutual-fund companies since college, he went back to school.

"At this point, you really do need an MBA to get anywhere in the business world," says Mr. Schmitt, who now researches companies at Tucker Anthony, a brokerage firm in Boston.

He's obviously not alone.

A recent GMAC survey of its member business schools found that 61 percent have seen an increase in applications this year. And more than 1 in 5 report jumps of 20 percent or more.

At Indiana University in Bloomington, applications are up 26 percent this year. So is their quality: "This year there were a large number of applicants who were the bread and butter of our program in years past who weren't offered admission because of our strong applicant pool," says admissions director James Holmen.

At some schools, like Northwestern University and Boston University, applications flattened out compared with a year ago, but remain near record highs.

International students provided a boost for many schools; 78 percent reported an increase in international applications, according to the GMAC survey.

Nearly half of Indiana University's increase in applicants this year came from foreign students. The top three countries: India, South Korea, and China.

And at the University of Virginia's Darden School, foreign students make up 21 percent of this year's incoming class, versus 12 percent a year ago.

Drop in business BAs

"As the MBA becomes a dime a dozen, that in itself propels the popularity of the degree," says Peter Kelly, director of admissions at Boston University, which has seen applications increase 25 percent over the past three years.

Ironically, interest in business as an undergraduate major has fallen off. Nationally, 15 percent of college freshmen said they planned to major in business in 1995, compared with 26 percent in 1987, according to a survey by the University of California at Los Angeles.

Some attribute the drop partly to students' recognition that they don't have to major in business or economics to get an MBA. For example, only 30 to 40 percent of Boston University's MBA students majored in business or economics.

The next big downturn in the economy could change everything, administrators concede. But some say a recession also helps ramp up admissions, because people have no jobs to go to.

Others, like Jon Megibow, admissions director at UVA's Darden School, see it in less economic terms: "We're in good shape as long as Oliver Stone doesn't blast us with another movie," a reference to the movie "Wall Street," a cynical look at business's obsession with getting rich at any cost.

ELITE B-SCHOOLS

The top 10 business schools, according to US News & World Report. The rankings were based on admissions selectivity, success placing graduates in jobs, and reputation among B-school deans and corporate recruiters.

1. Stanford University

2. Harvard University

3. University of Pennsylvania

4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

5. University of Chicago

6. Northwestern University

7. Columbia University

8. Dartmouth College

9. Duke University

10. University of California, Berkeley

Source: US News & World Report magazine, March 10, 1997

APPLICANT ABUNDANCE

A spring survey of 131 graduate business schools shows the following trends:

* 61 percent reported an increase in applications.

* 21 percent reported an increase in applications of 20 percent or more.

* 78 percent reported an increase in applications by international students.

* 38 percent reported an increase in applications by women.

* 28 percent reported an increase in applications by minorities.

Source: Graduate Management Admission Council

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