Business Schools Look for Different Kinds of Students

Admissions offices are pursuing more women and minority candidates.

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In a small classroom on the MIT Sloan School of Management campus in Cambridge, Mass., about 15 graduate business school students gather for a workshop on job interviews. The lesson is like any other for a group of job seekers—stay calm, tell a clear story—but the attendees look nothing like what you might expect. They all are women.Business schools have traditionally been white and male. Even today, women represent only about 30 percent of M.B.A. enrollment. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians make up fewer than 10 percent of the students in the top 30 business schools, while they comprise about 28 percent of the U.S. population.But business schools are working hard to make their classrooms reflect the real world—the world employers recognize, too. Companies "are trying to build the most diverse workforce," says Elissa Ellis-Sangster, executive director of the Forté Foundation, an organization that promotes women's leadership in business. Schools have followed suit, reaching out to potential students who may never have before considered an M.B.A.For most schools, the problem of gender and racial imbalance presents itself early in the application process. Simply put, women and underrepresented minorities do not apply to business programs as often as their counterparts do. If randomly drawn from the applicants, a first-year class would remain disproportionately white, Asian, and male. As a result, diversity and parity efforts rely heavily on outreach.In 2001, the Forté Foundation—a collaboration of major corporations, top business schools, and the Graduate Management Admission Council—was formed to address the lack of progress toward gender equity in business schools. Law and medical schools were quickly approaching parity, but business programs remained disproportionately male. Admissions officers were losing smart women not to competitor schools but to other disciplines.Since then, Forté and its member schools have talked to thousands of women to explain the value of the M.B.A. "We market not just the schools," says Julie Strong, an admissions officer at MIT Sloan. "We market the M.B.A. as a whole." Forté holds conferences in big cities to answer questions about financing, work-life balance, career opportunities, and the commitment necessary to earn an M.B.A. And, as with that job interview workshop held by MIT Sloan Women in Management, or SWIM, Forté events offer women a safe space to raise concerns that might not come up in a mixed-gender setting.Youth movement. Women also have benefited from a decade-old admissions trend at business schools: increasingly younger students. During the '90s, the age of business school students crept up until enrollees averaged about seven years of work experience. It was beginning to seem like the older, the better. But about 10 years ago, graduate programs began to reverse course, in part because of the effect an aging student population was having on diversity recruitment. By seeking out potential students just two or three years out of college, graduate programs could recruit more women when they were receptive to the message of a significant life change. "If you wait five to seven years, women are more concerned about uprooting their lives," Ellis-Sangster says. "The earlier you get them, the fewer strings attached."Tackling the dearth of certain minority groups may seem similar to the battle to reach gender parity, but the challenges are vastly different. For example, black women are relatively well represented in business schools, says Barbara Thomas, president and CEO of the National Black MBA Association. But, much like in the rest of academia, it is black men who are left behind.Part of the solution is to recruit young. The National Black MBA Association has begun outreach efforts in high school and specifically seeks out C students who might otherwise be overlooked. If she had her way, Thomas would start even younger. High school is "really not early enough," she says. "After the age of 9, if you have not gotten into the mind of the child, you probably have lost them."