While having an M.B.A. used to be a sure way to move up in the business world, helping new M.B.A.s find jobs upon graduation has now become a central task of the modern business school. Wake Forest University has taken this responsibility to heart, and administrators there have taken extra steps to ensure career success -- practically making getting a job a course requirement.
The school's dean, Steve Reinemund, has made improving job placement rates for all students, but particularly full-time M.B.A. students, a top priority. He has hired an army of career counselors, integrated “career management” into the curriculum, and aggressively sought out mentors to work with students. And that effort has paid off for graduates, with the school’s job placement rate – measured by the number of students employed within three months of graduation – jumping from about 77 percent to about 92 percent in three years. That jump comes at a time when many business schools, particularly those that, like Wake Forest, aren't at the very top of the list for employers or students, have struggled with job placement rates.
For comparison, a recent survey  by the Graduate Management Admissions Council found that 54 percent of full-time M.B.A. students in the U.S. had job offers at graduation in 2011, up from only 40 percent the year before.
The decision to focus on ensuring that students find jobs has paid dividends for the school, which is making headlines, moving up in rankings, and seeing a stronger applicant pool. But it also raises questions about how central a role career services should play in a business education, particularly at a time when some critics say business schools lack a philosophical direction .
Wake Forest’s push is one example of how business schools, much more so than other professional schools such as law, focus on the employment of their graduates. In recent years there has been a significant push in business schools to focus on career services and a professionalization of such offices, said Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the development and social role of business schools and M.B.A. programs.
“Perhaps it's because of the nature of the subject and the types of understanding that faculty exhibit,” said Dan LeClair, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of the Association for the Advancement of Collegiate Schools of Business International. “In a lot of ways, I don’t think business folks view these as independent activities. Much of what we learn in business schools relates to career management."
A heavy focus on job placement is nothing new for M.B.A. programs, administrators and observers said. Most business schools have career services offices that help students connect with potential employers, set up internships, and prepare for interviews. Placement rate and placement success are large components of some business school rankings, especially in U.S. News & World Report,  the Financial Times  and The Economist , and tend to be weighted more heavily than in law school rankings . After all, administrators say, a job upon graduation is exactly what students go into such programs expecting.
“In my experience as an M.B.A., at Harvard Business School, and knowing a bit about the market, it’s either the number one or number two thing that students consider when deciding to go for an M.B.A.,” said Matthew Merrick, senior associate dean for students at Wake Forest business school, who previously worked in career services at Harvard. He said job placement competes for that top spot with the desire to learn skills and knowledge to become better at working in the business world.
Merrick said students might not know exactly what sort of job they want when they enter the program, but that they go to business school looking to improve their lives and careers, and schools have an obligation to meet that desire.
“If we think a young man in his mid- to late-20s is going to make the investment to get an M.B.A., then we should do everything we should possibly can to help him achieve a career and a vision at the same time for the right kind of job that fits their passion,” he said.
When Steve Reinemund took over as dean of Wake Forest Schools of Business in 2008, he made job placement a top priority; he has often said that his goal is a placement rate of 100 percent. To get there, the school has taken several steps.
Every student is required to take a course in “Career Management ,” in which career services officials work with students to tease out their passions and find a job that would help them get paid for following those passions. This is done early in students' first semester, said Guy Groff, director of the school's Career Management Center, so that they can tailor their coursework and internships toward that goal. “Once you have someone focused on a path, it’s easy to direct and connect,” Groff said.
In the course, and throughout students' time in the M.B.A. program, the school stresses what it calls the “Four P’s”: passion, purpose, preparation, and performance. In addition to learning about how to discover one’s interest and apply for jobs, the school also “polishes” the students by teaching them the language of their field, how to act like professionals, and everyday skills like handshaking and etiquette.
The course is taught by members of the career management staff. That office is another area of major change for the university: it has grown from a staff of 4 to a staff of 16  in the last three years. With about 135 students in the full-time M.B.A. program, that’s roughly one staffer for each eight students. Comparatively, nearby Duke University, which is much larger and places higher in rankings, has 25 career services staffers  for 440 full-time M.B.A. students.
In addition to the class, the career management office handles corporate outreach, brings recruiters to campus, helps polish résumés and letters, and trains students for interviews. It also pairs students with mentors, part of another program administrators tout as a key component of the school's placement success.
The philosophy that Wake Forest administrators follow is that students already see job seeking and career planning as a major component of business education, so why shouldn’t their efforts reflect that? In a two-year M.B.A. program, a semester course is a lot of time to devote. But administrators hold that, in addition to an understanding of finance and marketing practices, graduates who wish to be successful in business should have a thorough understanding of their own career paths.
“Our emphasis is just as much on long-term vision,” Merrick said. “In this way, you can look for a job now, but also 10 years from now you can assess yourself. You can use the same skills to get a job 10 years from now.”
But because career changes and job placement have become such a focus of M.B.A. programs, Khurana said, business schools might be focusing too heavily on these offices and teaching students career management at the expense of other key components of a business education. "The challenge in all of this is that it continues to move business schools away from the educational imperative," he said.
He said there has been a commodification of M.B.A.s, due in part to their tremendous growth. Since 1950, the number of M.B.A.s awarded annually has grown from about 3,000 to about 170,000. People see the degree itself as a goal, he said, instead of focusing on what students are actually learning.
"The challenge you face here is that employers are recruiting in business schools even before students have taken a single class," Khurana said. "What's challenging is the idea that employers are not that concerned with what people are going to be learning and more interested in the kind of selection processes that they engage in."