Leadership & Governance

Setting Ambitious Goals, With an Eye on the Rankings

Andrew Ainslie, business dean, U. of Rochester

January 03, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Andrew Ainslie, who became dean of the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester in 2014, has high-reaching goals for the school, including one to rise significantly in the rankings. He stopped at The Chronicle's offices recently to discuss the results of some of his moves, like lowering tuition, and to evaluate strategies that other business schools are trying.


RUTH HAMMOND: Hello, I'm Ruth Hammond. Our guest here today is Andrew Ainslie. He's the dean of Simon Business School at the University of Rochester. Welcome.

ANDREW AINSLIE: Thank you, Ruth. Thanks very much for allowing me to be here.

RUTH HAMMOND: Well, since you took over as dean a few years ago, in 2014, you've really undertaken a number of changes. One of them is slashing tuition. It went down nearly 14 percent, to $92,000, for the two years. Why did you do that?

ANDREW AINSLIE: You know, it came from a few things. And I think it sort of began to grow in a sense. And one of the pieces of data on when I first got there was sort of trying to find out where we were positioned relative to our peer schools on all sorts of different measures, and see where we were an outlier.

And price was a clear one. We were at about $53,000. Most of our peer schools were in the low to mid-$40,000s. By peer I mean in that bracket of 30 to 40, which is roughly where we've been for the last few years.

RUTH HAMMOND: In rankings, right?


And so I thought, you know, why should I be out of step with the rest of my peers? The other interesting thing is actually we were giving out a lot of scholarship money — I suspect, although it's hard to really get data on this — more than my peer schools. So we figured that maybe we're doing something a little strange.

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We looked like we were a high-priced school, when in fact we were a low-priced school. So this type of sort of transparency in pricing is a huge issue all over the place in education today. And I sat there looking at it, thinking this is sort of nuts if I can just bring a little more clarity by dropping the price.

And I'll just be frank with you: We dropped scholarship support to a certain extent too. The average price paid by our students was well below $30,000. So I felt that by bringing us to the center of where our competitors were and simultaneously just adjusting on the scholarship side a little, that actually brings more transparency to the pricing picture for somebody who is trying to work out just how much school is going to cost them.

RUTH HAMMOND: But the students still can't make a good comparison, because everyone else was using the scholarships, maybe more than you, right. And so do they miss the scholarships? Do they say, Well, I thought I was going to get a scholarship?

ANDREW AINSLIE: Well, I think you've got to remember that they're looking at a set of offers from several schools. And I think that they rapidly begin to realize that the size of — you know, it's a mix of different things. The size of the scholarship is going to be a function of how good they are and how good that school is. And there's that whole idea of your stretch school, your sort of reasonable school, and your safety school.

And they sort of know they're going to get a huge scholarship from the safety school. They're not going to get anything. And they may not even be getting in at their stretch school.

And I think actually they're very savvy buyers. They understand that they're going to get that range of prices based on where the school is and how good they are.

RUTH HAMMOND: So what effect has this had on the number of people applying?

ANDREW AINSLIE: It was sort of astonishing. And what was astonishing is where it had the impact. So we were up about 20 percent overall on applications, but we were actually up 40 percent on U.S. applicants, which is really interesting.

So it seems in some sense — and I don't think it's that the American consumer of higher education is more price sensitive — in some sense, they're a little more savvy in that they understand the ecosystem a little better, because they've seen the same system at the undergraduate level. So they reacted in a big way.

RUTH HAMMOND: And so do you see other business schools trying to do the same?

ANDREW AINSLIE: Well, we've seen a real range of models. So I think one of the most I've seen is Arizona State, which went to a free model for everybody. Now that was temporary, because I think they realized that wasn't sustainable. But it's a really interesting experiment.

And if you chat to them, they say they've had some really interesting nonconventional applicants to business school as a result of that. So we're all experimenting, I think. But Arizona State's probably the bravest of all the examples.

RUTH HAMMOND: OK. And some people have been questioning lately, what's the value of an M.B.A.? About a quarter of all master's degrees are in the area of business, right? It's so common that in some sense people are arguing that it is devalued, but you're not one of them.

ANDREW AINSLIE: No, I'm definitely not one of them. I'm a big proponent. If you look at things like Forbes magazine's methodology of ranking, which is actually to look on return on investment, the return on investment on an M.B.A. is astonishing. And it's astonishingly deep.

You know, the argument I made a couple of years back in a couple of articles was many people say that it's only worth doing an M.B.A. if you're at a top-five school. Well, I think the missing piece of information there is [that] to get into a top-five school, you have to be an incredible individual. The people going today into Stanford and Harvard are amazing before they even get there.

So what's the delta? What's the change in outcome for them? That's the first thing. Because they're already starting at a much higher level, say, than somebody going into the 100th best school.

The second is, what's the price tag? So the price tag in the top 10 schools is now well over $60,000. In our neck of the woods, it's around $45,000. If you go down to the 80th school, it's about $20,000.

So the price point depends on the school that you go to and where is ranked. So we have — as you go up the rank, you have a higher price and a higher quality of applicants. The only thing people focus on is the highest salaries when they leave. But to me, it's all three.

And if you take account of three — who's coming in, what it costs to go there, and where they exit — actually there's deep value all the way through. The data I got was up to 70th best school. All the way through the 70th best, there was deep value to be given in the M.B.A.

And the return on investment measured by how quickly people paid back debt is astonishing. Most M.B.A. students are debt-free within four or five years. So that's amazing in my mind.

RUTH HAMMOND: Yeah. And that, that doesn't happen in a number of other fields.

ANDREW AINSLIE: No, it really doesn't.

RUTH HAMMOND: Yeah. You take a somewhat contrary view to some of the things that other people are favoring right now, for instance, online education. You don't seem to see that that's a good route for you to take.

ANDREW AINSLIE: I think we're beginning to see some interesting signs now. Because what people are realizing now is that a pure model of online education, which is just to me interfacing with a computer and maybe some sort of questionnaires, doesn't work very well. And so as a result, what we're now seeing is what really is more hybrid.

And to make hybrid work, you can go one of two ways. By hybrid, I mean a mixture of face-to-face contact plus a digital interface, whether it's videos or quizzes or something like that. Hybrid used to require that we actually show up in a classroom. And 30 students show up with one faculty member, 30 to 60 with one faculty member, and interact.

Slowly, we're now seeing technologies where actually students can create a virtual classroom and interact. And as our technology gets better, I think we're now moving to a more interesting world. But certainly, when this whole explosion started three or four years ago, the underlying concept of a MOOC, massively open online [course], I've always felt was deeply flawed. And we see it in the response rates.

Very few people actually ever complete these classes. And it's not clear exactly what they're bringing. The other thing I think I really want to make clear is there's a place in the market. I just don't think it's a place in the market that, if you will, the sort of top schools ought to be taking.

And I think that, again, I'm going to quote the same school twice, but ASU has taken a really brave strategy in developing online courses, which people like Starbucks have used, that I think is a massive — you know, the benefit to society is huge. I don't think the quality is very high. But if you're somebody who wants to sort of elevate their position in life, having access to this type of education is wonderful.

And it's market segmentation. It's a matter of the right university having the right strategy in the right place. I don't think that's the right place for us to be right now. But I think that, on the one hand, they're doing a fantastic job. On the other hand, I also think that Harvard is doing a fantastic job right now in terms of introducing their professors and their topics to young students, who also get preferential treatment when they move forward to the application process for Harvard. Harvard's learning something about them. They're learning something about Harvard.

But you know, they're Harvard. So they can afford to do this in a way where very few of the schools can afford to do it. So it's interesting that the most interesting plays are at the very top of the markets and at the level of trying to get it out to a very broad population.

RUTH HAMMOND: So there's another aspect that everybody seems to talk about a lot, which is getting the international experience in study abroad. And you don't seem too fond of that either, in terms of sending your M.B.A. students somewhere else.

ANDREW AINSLIE: Yeah, it's sort of interesting. So let's start with the program I really don't like, which is swap programs. We send somebody somewhere else, and their students come to us. The thing that I've observed over the last few years is if you look carefully at the schools the people are choosing, they're not basing it on pedagogical value. They're basing it on entertainment value.

They love to go to London. They love to go to Barcelona. They love to go to beautiful places in the world.

My alma mater, the University of Cape Town, they love to go to these beautiful places in the world. And I don't think that tourism should be a part of an educational experience. But you know, if the swaps are occurring with very strong schools, I think that can be very beneficial. It just doesn't happen often enough.

So the new move, which more of us are moving to, is let's take our faculty or a known good faculty member in another country, organize groups of our students with their current peers — let's get them over to another country and get them to meet businesses, meet business people, meet regulators in that country, and find out more about that environment. That I think is great. That I think is much more useful than the swaps that we've seen traditionally.

RUTH HAMMOND: You're doing that now?

ANDREW AINSLIE: We're doing that. We're a small school. So we can't do it on a scale of a lot of other schools. But we did a trip to Israel earlier this year. And we're experimenting now with trips to China and to Europe, which I think are just great environments to expose our students to.

RUTH HAMMOND: You have quite explicitly stated you have the goal to rise in the rankings, to be in the top 25 by 2021. Is there a risk in creating such an ambitious goal as that?

ANDREW AINSLIE: There's always risk in ambitious goals. And I think I'm happy with that. I'm comfortable with that. I've even gone as far as to say that if we don't hit that, then people should reconsider whether or not I'm the right person for the job in the following years.

Because I think that without ambition, without goals, we're never going to achieve the really big things. And this is a big thing. For us to move up 10 or 11 positions in the rankings is going to be immensely tough.

And it takes a single-minded focus in order to do that. So yeah, it's brave. But you can't achieve big things without taking those types of stances in the marketplace.

RUTH HAMMOND: Well, Dean Ainslie, thank you so much for being here with us today.

ANDREW AINSLIE: Thank you very much, Ruth. I really enjoyed it.

Ruth Hammond is editor of the Chronicle Focus collections, the Chronicle List, and the Almanac; follow her on Twitter @RuthEHammond; or email her at ruth.hammond@chronicle.com.