The average Harvard Business School (HBS) student is 27 years old with about four years of work experience--similar to the national business school average. But in an effort to bring new and younger perspectives to HBS, the school is actively recruiting at colleges, encouraging undergraduates to apply earlier, even straight out of college.
"We are going to speak at colleges for the first time in about a decade, trying to significantly increase our outreach to undergraduates," says Kirsten J. Moss, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid.
This year, HBS will visit about 20 schools. In September, Moss spoke across the river at the Harvard Student Agencies Business Leadership Program, telling an audience of 100 College seniors that they should consider business school immediately or after only a couple of years of experience.
"We want people to apply when they think they are ready--there is no minimum age or work requirement," Moss says. "And it's important to get the message out to undergraduates now because, if you wanted to come after a couple of years' experience, you would have to start the process only one year after graduation."
Moss and Williston Professor of Business Administration W. Carl Kester, chair of the MBA program, began to refocus the recruiting process on younger students when they assumed their positions last year. Kester says there was a consensus among deans and unit heads (the HBS equivalent of department heads) that it would be desirable to re-attract a group whose representation had decreased over the years.
Rather surprisingly, 20 years ago more than half of HBS students had fewer than two years' work experience. Now, such students compose less than five percent of the class.
"Over time, that part of the applicant pool has gotten little focus," Kester says. "It has withered under the presumption that anyone with less than four or five years of experience has simply no chance of admission."
Kester notes that the presence of more young people is especially important now, at a time when they have such a significant impact on the business world.
"It also seemed apparent in the so-called new economy, where people are starting businesses in their teenage years, that very talented folks might benefit from an MBA at an earlier stage in their careers," he says. "If one waited, the opportunity cost of stepping out of their ventures might be too high."
Moss says that the shift in recruiting strategy has little to do with the recent declines in application numbers to the top 25 business schools.
Perhaps as a result of the opportunities in the new economy for people without advanced degrees, the number of applicants to the Business Week's top 25 business schools was down seven percent this year, according to this year's Business Week survey of such schools.
Stanford Business School and Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, which are both precipitously close to Silicon Valley, felt the sharpest drops--more than 20 percent since 1998.
In contrast, Moss says Harvard's applicant numbers were down 3.5 percent for this year, which she said HBS did not find troubling. She also cites the general decrease in the number of Americans between 25 and 34, the prime age for business school, as a key factor in the general decline.
HBS has never had a formal policy against accepting undergraduates. About five percent of students who take the GMAT nationally have two years of experience or less, according to Moss, so HBS already has its expected share of that group. She says HBS hopes to increase representation of these students to about seven percent. In a class of 900 MBA candidates, that would be an increase from about 45 students to about 60.
In the two-year MBA program, classes are taught with the highly interactive case method. Instruction is based on student participation, as students discuss their various approaches to a business case.
"It is important in the case environment to have a diversity of gender, ethnicity, college major and other traits because having people come to table with very different perspectives is powerful," Moss says. "When the faculty reflects on what is missing in the classroom, the younger voice is what is missing right now."
Dickinson Professor of Accounting Srikant M. Datar, senior associate dean and director of faculty recruiting, says that he thinks that now is a good time to experiment with the addition of younger students to the classroom.
"My own view is you see a large number of young entrepreneurs today, and certainly we feel that any folks with that kind of experience would enrich the classroom," Datar says.
Harvard is far from alone in its push to attract students sooner after graduation. On Nov. 8, representatives from MIT's Sloan School of Management, Stanford Business School, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management and other business schools will join HBS at an outreach event in Boston for undergraduates. A similar event will be held in Los Angeles the next day.
Despite the fact that having more students at an early stage in their careers will add diversity to the classroom, some current HBS students question the wisdom of attending business school too early.
"It's tough to bring insight into a discussion if you've never worked in the world," current MBA student Brian J. Shortsleeve '95 says. "And there are really two parts to your education at [HBS]--the classroom and building a social network. It's really a lot more difficult to just hang out with people if everyone is five to 10 years older."
Shortsleeve spent four years in the Marine Corps after being in ROTC at the College. He is now beginning his second year at HBS.
Datar says that the kind of experience younger students have can compensate for the amount.
"The key point, I think, is that experience is critical," he says. "Some undergraduates have had very good work experience. They may not have years, but they have the right kind, which is the important criteria."
When asked about the effects lowering the average age would have on classroom dynamics, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurial and Service Management Roger H. Hallowell '84 and Professor of Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Carliss Y. Baldwin declined to comment.
Moss says students with fewer than four years experience usually have fewer assets, and HBS financial aid will have to carry more of the weight. To complement the need-blind admissions policy, Moss says that the HBS financial aid office makes an effort to accommodate these students. HBS tuition is about $28,000 per year.
"There are a lot of high-potential leaders out there [at universities]," she says. "We want people to apply when they're ready and they think they can demonstrate the leadership qualities we look for. We want people to know they don't have to worry about not having the experience or the assets."
--Staff writer Thomas J. Castillo can be reached at email@example.com.