CHILL FACTOR: Dot-com downturn not bad news for business schools

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

Last fall, Jason Blanchard was already thinking about business school, figuring it would be the ticket to a more interesting and lucrative career.

''I felt I could do bigger and better things,'' said Blanchard, 30, who was working for a New York-based Web services firm called InterWorld. ''I'd been out of college for six or seven years, and it seemed like I had just scratched the surface.''

But b-school was only an idea -- at least until December, when Blanchard got laid off. He moved quickly to take the Graduate Management Admissions Test and apply to a half-dozen schools just ahead of the spring deadlines. He's still waiting to hear, but expects to be enrolled somewhere next fall.

Last spring, at the height of the dot-com boom, the flow of business school applications was down. Stories circulated that the best and the brightest weren't interested, and that some already enrolled were dropping out, saying they couldn't afford to miss two years of the Internet revolution.

''Just a year later, folks who perhaps had a rough ride in a dot-com are now seeing that the experience you get in an MBA might have been valuable,'' said Rose Martinelli, director of graduate admissions at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Admissions officers say there isn't a crush of dot-commers, but their presence is being felt.

The number of people taking the GMAT, required by almost all business schools, is up 10 percent this year, according to Fred McHale of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the test. About 210,000 people have taken the test in the last 12 months. By the end of the academic year, the number of test-takers is expected to be the highest since 1996-97.

Attendance at Princeton Review GMAT prep courses is up 13 percent nationwide this year, said company spokeswoman Harriet Brand. In the tech bastions of San Francisco and Seattle, the numbers are up 93 percent and 95 percent, respectively.

Late last month Princeton Review hosted a ''Pink Slip Party'' in Boston where laid-off workers met representatives from area business schools.

Because it can take a year to go through the application process, experts say the real effect could be felt next year, especially if the economic slowdown endures. But some schools have already seen dramatic jumps.

In Boston, applications at Northeastern University are up about 50 percent this year, though some of the increase comes from international applicants. Boston College applications are up 22 percent over last year.

Still, for the nation's business schools, an economic downturn is a bit of a curveball. At Wharton, there were 7,300 applications this year, about the same as last year. Nationwide, the total number of applications is likely to be up only modestly from a year ago, according to interviews with experts and preliminary data from GMAC.

Application lag time and cost are both factors. It can cost nearly $200 to apply to a school, plus a similar amount to take the GMAT, so prospective students are applying to fewer schools.

Also, experts say, while some students are more likely to head back to school during a downturn, others are less likely to give up a job.

''There's a piece of it that's cyclical, and a piece that's countercyclical,'' said Daphne Atkinson, vice president for information at GMAC and a former admissions officer at Cornell University's business school.

''There's a piece that says, 'If the economy goes down, this is a great time to jump ship and go back to school.' Other people say this is not a time to risk not having a job.''

At the University of Florida, Dean John Kraft says applications are higher for the school's specialized master's program, aimed at students who don't have work experience. But the number of typical MBA applicants, who usually have work experience, is steady.

''It's always been true when the economy softens that people who can't get the type of job they want go back to school,'' Kraft said. ''But MBA students (who) have been out there working, those students may want to stay on, because if they quit their job, they may not get another one.''

Students who arrived last fall say they're glad they came when they did. Word around campus is that getting in will be much tougher this year.

Jim Gallagher, 29, had worked for almost eight years as a financial adviser at Fidelity Investments in Boston. He applied a year ago after nearly deciding to hold off a year. He's glad he didn't.

''Almost as soon as I (came), the economy turned,'' said Gallagher, now finishing his first year at Boston College. ''A lot of my classmates are having trouble finding summer internships, and a lot of the second-years are having trouble finding quality jobs.

''I'm really lucky I'm in when I am, and hopefully things will turn around by the time I'm looking for a full-time job next year.''

End advance for release Thursday, May 10

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