Published: September 28, 2007

Gaining Competitive Advantage—By Asking More of Students

Dean Edward Snyder

Image by Dan Dry

What explains why Chicago Booth is doing so well on so many fronts? And, to the extent that I understand them, should I make the reasons public? Suppose our competitors follow suit—is that good or bad? 

I am, of course, reluctant to give up any competitive advantage. While Chicago Booth has the most momentum among the top business schools in the world, several of our toughest competitors have significant advantages over us in terms of financial resources, and a smaller number continue to have more brand name capital than we do, despite the quality of our alumni and faculty and the increasing levels of recognition for all things Chicago.

I’ve decided to go public with part of what’s behind our success because a) it won’t be that easy for some schools to follow, and b) the extent to which they do follow reflects well on Chicago Booth as a leader. Over the last couple of years I have been clear that we reject the proposition that students should be treated as customers and—more revealing—that a significant factor in our success has been our consistent approach of asking more of students.

"I firmly believe that our continued momentum is, in part, a direct result of the high expectations we set for our students."

MBA education tumbled into the “students as customers” model sometime during the last 28 years of above-inflation tuition increases. Deans no doubt felt better telling those to whom we charged increasingly large amounts that they were not mere graduate students but also customers purchasing an educational experience. Over the last two decades, schools competed for students by redefining their positions and portraying themselves as ready to meet, and even anticipate, students’ needs. Further, as many MBA programs—executive as well as full time—moved toward more experienced and talented individuals, referring to them as something other than students became comfortable and natural. This redefinition became the norm, representing good practice, on the belief that it fostered student-school rapport.

The problem is that the students-as-customers model is false, and, more than that, it’s corrupting. Schools are in the best position to influence a student’s academic, ethical, and professional development. We should not abdicate this responsibility by telling them that they are customers and, thus always right.

One dean I knew quite well tried to salvage the customer model by saying that their MBAs were “students in the classroom, but customers outside the classroom.”  Nice try, but that doesn’t work either. If a student doesn’t represent himself well when interviewing for jobs, then the school’s relationship capital suffers. If a second-year student doesn’t help her first-year colleagues evaluate early career option steps, then the whole community loses. In fact, the customer model fails on all critical dimensions for similar reasons.

Instead of “the customer is always right,” Chicago Booth has consistently employed a version of “you get what you put into it.” We have engaged our MBA students with a combination of “stretch and support” by setting high expectations, recognizing them when they meet those expectations, and kicking them in the butt when they don’t.

We care deeply about our students, their experiences, and what they are trying to achieve, and we aim to support them day by day and in truly profound ways by getting the right balance of stretch and support.

Chicago Booth has done well in achieving that balance and moving into a more productive equilibrium. Students feel challenged and supported and, as a result, put more into their GSB experience. As a result, they also get more out of it. 

We’ve also asked more of our students because we want their leadership and energy. Our students have done much to strengthen the school because they haven’t seen their role as consumers, but as something more. They have launched initiatives in the city and around the globe. They have built new relationships with corporate partners and added dimensions to many existing relationships. They get feedback and give it, and for the most part, this is a constructive process that constantly allows all of us to appreciate what we have, and focus on how to make it better.

I firmly believe that our continued momentum is, in part, a direct result of the high expectations we set for our students. So as we execute our two-part strategy (sustaining and strengthening the GSB culture of critical thought, and achieving alignment around internal and external relationships that matter), our students—not customers—have a critically important role. As a result, we’re making good progress on achieving our objective of being the best business school in the world on all dimensions and being recognized as such.

Edward A. Snyder, Dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Economics

Last Updated 5/14/09