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Can You Buy Your Way into Harvard, Stanford or Wharton?

We've all heard the stories about wealthy alumni making donations to universities only to have those schools accept their kids. It's a common practice and undergraduate schools acknowledge it with little more than a wink and a nod. But does it happen at the graduate level? And, specifically, does it happen at elite MBA schools? 

The answer is yes. I know this because I've participated in it, advising the "buyer" — a student of mine — on how to handle the situation.

The Backstory

It was one of the three Super Elites — Harvard, Stanford and Wharton. A few years earlier, my student's family had made a significant contribution to the university — well into eight figures, and, for all I know, nine. What's clear is that the donation had not been made in order to secure admission. It was given in good faith and for good reason. The university was grateful for the support and, as a consequence, receptive to requests from the family.

My student asked me how to play it, and we began a long process of backchannel discussions and window-dressing steps that would allow him to be admitted to the business school while ensuring that the university could save face.

Why He Didn't Belong at HSW

He didn't have enough work experience, and what he had wasn't good enough for that school. Don't get me wrong, this was a bright guy with a great undergraduate education. The problem was that he had graduated only recently and hadn't had time to gain significant responsibility.

He also had a mediocre GMAT score — not bad, but not overwhelming either. I'd describe it as acceptable, though well below the school's average.

My Advice

I advised him not to apply. It was just too soon. Had he been admitted that year, he would have stood out as an MBA student with very little work experience. Classmates who had gotten wind of the donation would put two and two together, and the conclusion would be obvious. I told him to wait a year, gain more experience and look more legitimate as an admit. The school asked him to do the same thing.

The next year, they admitted him.

Is that Evil?

No. I know that in a perfect world we should all have an equal chance when it comes to education, but that isn't the only factor to consider. This family's donation contributed significantly to the university's mission, and I too would have let the kid in. It's a way of showing appreciation for a gift that could have gone to another university — or to none at all. That's how life works sometimes. Maybe it's me, but I'm just not offended by what the university did.

It was one student out of hundreds who were admitted to the MBA program, and that family's donation significantly advanced the cause of the university and benefitted many. Yes, it's not perfect, but it's also not evil.

The Bottom Line

You: "Would he have been admitted without the donation?"
Me: "No chance."
You: "So, he bought his way into HSW?"
Me: "Yes."