Grades: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Cornell joins the growing number of highly selective institutions whose business schools have adopted nondisclosure policies concerning grades and recruitment.

September 13, 2018
 

Students at Cornell University's Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management voted for grade nondisclosure, effectively immediately, after years of agitating for a policy similar to those in place at other highly selective M.B.A. programs.

Under the new policy, one-, two-year, and Johnson Cornell Tech M.B.A. students can't disclose their grades to recruiters until they've been offered a full-time job. That means grade-point averages, but also individual course, assignment and exam grades.

Exceptions include dual degree students, such as those enrolled in a joint law program, and those applying for jobs abroad or in nonprofits or government. Fellowship applicants also may disclose their grades.

Cornell has previously mulled grade nondisclosure, to no avail. The recent decision followed a year-long strategic study, initiated by the Johnson Student Council, of how grade nondisclosure might affect academics and recruitment. The committee charged with preparing the report recommended putting it to a student referendum. A vote was held this month.

"We pride ourselves on our academic rigor and on graduating students who excel on multiple dimensions," Vishal Gaur, associate dean for M.B.A. programs, said in an announcement. "So we worked closely with students to find ways to balance Johnson's learning goals with recruitment needs."

He added, "We hope that grade non-disclosure will encourage students to take more academic risks and think holistically about their education, personal development, leadership and the impact they want to have in the future."

Via email, Gaur declined to share the internal report. He said he couldn't disclose vote counts, either, only that 90 percent of students in the three affected programs participated in the referendum and showed "overwhelming" support for nondisclosure.

Cornell says that it's asked recruiters to "respect" the student vote and refrain from asking about grades, and that it doesn't expect recruiting to suffer. Indeed, businesses continue to pursue, early and often, M.B.A. students at Yale and Stanford Universities and the University of Pennsylvania, among other peer institutions whose business schools have adopted nondisclosure policies.

Pennsylvania's Wharton School was the first to adopt nondisclosure, in 1994, by an overwhelming student referendum in favor. Harvard University was next, in 1998, though it adopted a policy applying only to on-campus recruitment. The policy has since been reversed, to optional disclosure. By 2007, according to one study, five highly selective business schools had some sort of nondisclosure policy. Today, about a dozen such institutions have some such policy.

To that point, recruiters generally say that it's easy to find strong candidates based on other available details, such as interview performance, internships, business experience, extracurriculars and honors.

The original idea behind grade nondisclosure parallels the rationale behind pass-fail policies: exact grades aren't the be-all-and-end-all of success, and experience and experimentation matter. A particular concern in business programs is student competitiveness, which can hinder teamwork and therefore preparation for a field that relies on it.

Over all, the balance of these policies' use has now tipped, such that many students now say attending a rigorous institution without a nondisclosure policy puts them at a disadvantage in terms of recruiting.

Victoria Wilmarth, a recent Johnson M.B.A. who served on the policy study committee as a student, said she thought that nondisclosure would help encourage teamwork, collaborative learning and even academic risk-taking.

"This vote helps bring Johnson's academic experiences into alignment with the school's values," she said in a statement.

While academic risk-taking and increased collaboration are reasons that numerous institutions have adopted nondisclosure policies, these policies have their critics, too -- especially faculty members who say that nondisclosure encourages underperformance.

A 2011 study of nondisclosure policies published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, found that self-reported levels of academic effort had dropped in relation to disclosure, and that that challenged the idea that students were using it as an opportunity to challenge themselves. A Wharton dean also reported that time spent on coursework had dropped 22 percent in a four-year period after nondisclosure was adopted, based on student surveys, according to the study.

The NBER paper also questioned why only elite programs adopted these policies, since distinguishing oneself at the top of one's class was still important at lower-tier programs. Of course, recruiters tend to look at highly selective program completion as a qualifier in and of itself.

Reached Wednesday, several Johnson faculty members who were not involved in the study said that they had no strong feelings about the change, good or bad.

Stijn M.J. van Osselaer, S.C. Johnson Professor of Marketing and associate dean for academic affairs, said he had "no strong opinion" about the change, which he also experienced as a professor at his prior institution, the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

"Didn't seem to make much of a difference for me as a professor either way," he said.

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