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Personalizing MBA Recruitment

As prospective students weigh a multitude of educational options, the Graziadio School takes steps to highlight the long-term value of its MBA.

Whether candidates for graduate management education are looking to enhance their skills, advance in their careers, or switch careers altogether, they are considering an increasingly growing list of educational options. They might choose to complete certificate programs focused on particular skills in demand, sign up for coding camps, pursue one-year specialized master’s programs—or, of course, earn their MBAs.

With so many options available, how can a business school show today’s prospective students that it would be a great choice to pursue not only an MBA, but its MBA? For several years, Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School in Los Angeles has been working to demonstrate the value of its MBA in real-world terms, by moving toward more comprehensive and nuanced marketing strategies, says Arman Davtyan, Graziadio’s assistant dean of enrollment management.

Today, he points out, more business schools are touting the return on investment for their programs on their websites, by posting data related to their alumni’s salaries and placement rates. But as the market grows more competitive, focusing on salary alone will likely not be enough. Prospective students are looking for more compelling reasons to choose one program over another—reasons that aren’t always financial.

“Everyone has different motivations. For some people, it’s not about getting a salary increase—it’s about finding meaningful career opportunities where they can be enriched in different ways. There are other human aspects that people have to consider: What makes me happy? What gives me fulfillment?” says Davtyan. The job of admissions and enrollment professionals today is to provide this group with as holistic a view of the MBA as possible.

“We are always thinking about how to collect and report the best available information,” says Davtyan. “We know that business school candidates are analytical, they are pragmatic—they really want to know if it's worth spending 100,000 USD on an MBA. We are always sensitive to the heightened need to provide the statistics and narratives about what an MBA can do.”

Going Beyond Statistics

The value of a school’s MBA is about more than the numbers—it’s about the experiences, aspirations, and career satisfaction of a school’s graduates. Like many business schools, Graziadio includes profiles of its full-time MBA students on its website, including their academic and career backgrounds before coming to the MBA program, internships they’ve received after coming into the program, and what their career aspirations are after graduation.

Sharing these qualitative stories with prospective students has always been valuable, says Davtyan, but it’s now becoming more important than ever. “It’s a more holistic way to show an external audience the full range of people who come into our program,” he says. “It really humanizes the valuation. We can spout off a lot of statistics that are easily digestible, but it’s important that we also highlight each student in our program. It’s particularly powerful for prospective students who find that some of these profiles really resonate with them. They’ll say, ‘This person’s background and ambitions are very similar to mine.’”

To complement these profiles, the Graziadio School is looking for ways to make even its presentation of salary and placement data more personalized. As part of this objective, the school has partnered with AstrumU, a data science startup based in Seattle, to use the company’s Enrollment Marketing Toolkit. The platform uses machine learning to provide prospective students with salary estimates and job placement outcomes based on criteria entered by users, such as course selection, academic performance, extracurricular experiences, industries of interest, and employer-provided data. The platform matches these criteria with the salary and career outcomes achieved by alumni who have similar backgrounds and who followed similar pathways.

To support the machine learning element of the tool, the business school is providing data related to alumni education records and syllabi for each of its courses and degree programs. Students have “general ideas about the MBA being a portable, marketable, valuable degree,” says Davtyan, “but this allows us to contextualize the degree with our own track record.”

Different Students, Different Motivations

To help their school’s MBA program stand out in the market, admissions personnel will need to use all the tools at their disposal—from alumni career outcomes to student profiles to data analytics and machine learning—to help prospective students visualize how a particular MBA program can serve their individual aspirations. By providing reliable predictive information regarding potential career outcomes, business schools can better address prospective students’ questions regarding the value of the type of graduate business education they hope to pursue, says Deryck J. van Rensburg, the school’s dean.

“It’s critically important that business schools demonstrate the lasting relevance and return on investment that our alumni can expect after graduating,” he says. This initiative, he adds, is “about getting more transparent about how the MBA experience connects students to real-world opportunities for growth and advancement.”

The bottom line, says Davtyan, is that schools will have to be far more deliberate in the ways they promote their programs to prospective candidates in order to demonstrate what their program can deliver that others cannot. That includes presenting candidates with information that goes beyond quantitative factors such as average salary, job placement, and promotion data, to include far more customized and qualitative factors such as the extent to which alumni with similar backgrounds and aspirations have found more meaningful careers and achieved greater social impact.

Davtyan considers it “a responsibility” to provide as much qualitative and quantitative information as possible, so that prospective candidates can make informed choices based on the goals they’d like to achieve. After taking all factors into account, he admits, some might decide that an MBA might not be essential for achieving those goals after all.

“We’ve done a lot of analysis, and we’ve found that our biggest competitor isn’t another school—it’s the person deciding not to go to school at all, whether it’s because they’ve determined that it’s not the right time or they don’t think the payoff is there,” says Davtyan. “Everyone has different motivations. We can focus on potential salaries and goals such as promotions, but there are other aspects people have to consider.”


Tricia Bisoux of AACSB InsightsTricia Bisoux is an editor with AACSB Insights.