When College Says Yes But B-School Says No

High school senior Corey Jones is a strong, in-state applicant for the University of Michigan: 3.8 GPA, already taking collegiate accounting courses, and a former athlete on the Traverse City Central High School ski team.

Although Jones might get into the university, he thinks his odds of being accepted directly to Michigan’s Ross School of Business are much slimmer, and that immediately makes U. of M. his No. 2 choice. “If I couldn’t get a business degree I feel like I would have to transfer,” says Jones, who hopes to become a certified public accountant.

Jones’s fears aren’t unfounded. As applications surge and flagship universities in many states become more selective, the effect on their well-known undergraduate business programs is compounded. Some of the most popular state-school business programs are becoming more selective, at a faster rate, than the universities they belong to. The end result is that students who may have been shoe-ins for business degrees at those schools five years ago now face a much higher chance of being edged out to other majors.

“One thing driving more applications to the business school has been the economy. Students are looking more at the practicality of their education,” says Lawrence Mur’ray, director of undergraduate programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business.


Even before the economy tanked in 2008, business was among the most popular degree programs on college campuses. Students often have two chances to get into undergraduate business programs: one as an incoming freshman, and another going into their junior year, when they are evaluated based on their collegiate performance. If the students don’t get in, they must choose another major. As undergrad B-school applications rise, the added pressure gives applicants an extra consideration as they decide where to apply.

“We tell students to think about what is most important to them, the school or the major,” says Bob Gambarelli, director of student services at James Madison High School in Vienna, Va. Gambarelli advises students considering the business programs at the University of Virginia and at Virginia Tech.

Jones, the aspiring accountant in Traverse City, says the major is most important to him. He favors the smaller Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., where admissions officers were impressed by his academic profile, invited him to campus for a personal tour, and assured him that he qualified for direct entry into the accounting program.


The reality at the University of Michigan is that the university admitted 41 percent of total applicants in 2011, down from 47 percent in 2006. In other words, it denied admission to 6 percent more applicants over that period.

Ross admitted 23 percent of total applicants (both incoming freshman and juniors), down from 39 percent, over the same period, denying admission to 16 percent more applicants, making it more selective than some top private programs, including Emory and Villanova, and on a par with Cornell, an Ivy League institution.

A similar effect can be seen at UNC Chapel Hill, which denied admission to 1.6 percent more applicants in 2010 than in 2006, compared with 13 percent more who were denied at Kenan-Flagler.

Kenan-Flagler became so exclusive, so fast, that it needed a better method of identifying who should be admitted. In 2009, staff began conducting in-person interviews with every UNC student who applied to the undergraduate business program. The school wanted to acknowledge that “students are more than what they are on a piece of paper,” Mur’ray says.

As a concession to those who were denied admission, Kenan-Flagler also introduced an online business certificate in 2009. That way, students who wanted exposure to general business courses could still get it.