An Official Stamp?

When 112,000 newly-minted M.B.A. graduates seek employment this year, they will face the fiercest competition in a decade. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, job placement rates for M.B.A. graduates are down 21% from 2001. But the International Certification Institute, a North Carolina-based company, says it is giving candidates an edge by offering the pilot M.B.A. certification exam this spring.

The founders of the Institute, Dr. Bernard Beatty, a professor at Wake Forest University, and Michael Mebane, a retired business executive, believe the test will benefit employers by offering an indication of how well potential employees grasp fundamental business skills. Unlike other certification tests, such as the CPA or Bar Exam, there is no accrediting body administering the exam, nor is it mandatory to pass the exam in order to practice within the business profession.

According to Mebane, 135 M.B.A. course directors were enlisted to critique and comprise testing questions based on courses required for business school accreditation. The exam covers 10 areas: financial management, accounting, macro and microeconomics, marketing, operations management, finance, strategy, quantitative analysis, and organizational behavior. Its impending implementation has spurred a growing debate, particularly among business schools, about its effectiveness.

Anjani Jain, vice dean and director of the graduate division of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, doesn’t believe any test can fully quantify knowledge.

“My belief is that to think of the M.B.A. as a credential measured by some bar-type exam is a rather narrow view of the educational experience,” he says. “I think that employers appreciate the caliber and knowledge of our students and are not likely to place much weight on the proposed certification.”

Mark Rice, dean of Babson College’s graduate school of business, agrees — to a point, having taken a number of certification exams. “The good thing is that they say this person has at least a minimal level of knowledge about this professional discipline,” he explains. “The certification, however, says nothing about your real capacity to use that knowledge. And so the danger is for certification to be taken as evidence of competence.”

Lesser-known business schools, proponents of the exam, view it as an opportunity to quantify their M.B.A. program against others. “It is the great equalizer,” says Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande, dean of business and technology at Webster University. “At the end of the day, the test measures whether you have sufficient knowledge of your curriculum regardless of whether you attended Savannah College, Webster, Harvard, or Yale. It is an added level of validation that will at least give an indicator of what your abilities are.”

While Mebane says their upcoming exams include students from 23 of the top 30 business schools, he too believes second- and third-tier schools have the most to gain.

“We hear the concerns about the value of the M.B.A.,” says Mebane. “Personal circumstances don’t allow many to attend a high-end school. This addresses their needs and gives them an opportunity to differentiate themselves.”

Ultimately, employers will decide the test’s viability. It is still too early to determine whether businesses will