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揭开GMAT考试的暴利之谜

John A. Byrne 2014年02月14日

MBA学位堪称战后最成功的教育产品,应运而生的GMAT考试也随之发展为一桩利润丰厚的全球性大买卖。2012年,GMAT组织方收取了8,770万美元的考试费,但管理考试的成本仅为4,570万美元。也就是说,它的实际毛利率大约为48%,比苹果目前的毛利率高出近11个百分点。

    当时对威尔逊非常有利的一点是,MBA教育正在呈现势不可挡的飞速增长趋势。约40年前,美国大学培养的律师和MBA人数大致相同。现在,MBA毕业生数量已经远超法学博士毕业生,比例接近4比1。鉴于许多法学院依然难以完成招生指标,这项比率很可能将进一步向MBA倾斜。在美国之外,商学院和MBA学位也出现了爆炸式的增长。

    威尔逊执掌GMAC的18年里,他一直是MBA学位最引人瞩目的倡导者,直到他去年12月31日光荣退休。在他看来,“MBA学位为人们打造了一个驰骋职场的基础。人们可以借助这项学位来改变或加快自己的职业生涯。”

    刚刚成为GMAC掌门人,威尔逊就立刻把他的会计技能应用在了最大的成本中心ETS身上。别的不说,他注意到,ETS正在卖掉大约14万套获得GMAC出版许可,由3本书组成的考试指南。“我就想不明白,你每年卖这么多书,怎么还赔钱呢,”威尔逊说。主要原因是,这套指南书中的两本——一本是各大商学院简介,另一本介绍财政资助申请政策——是赔钱的;那个年代没有亚马逊网站(Amazon),ETS通过传真确认书籍预订请求。威尔逊还采用招标方式选择合作伙伴帮助这个组织处理资金管理业务,最终把这项任务从ETS身上剥离了出来。

    此外,尽管GMAC当时拥有的资源有限,但他依然全力推动这个组织取消笔试,转而采用一种能够根据每位考生的答案自动调整的计算机考试。这番努力耗费了GMAC大约1,000万到1,200万美元。功夫不负有心人,GMAC终于在1997年成功启动了这项新测试,从而能够随时随地提供相同的考试服务。

    对GMAC的成长贡献最大的事件出现在2003年,也就是它正式与ETS分道扬镳。大约12年后,威尔逊依然能够生动地回忆起这起事件的细节。2001年11月11日,他接到这家考试服务中心的CEO打来的一通电话。“他说他们准备关闭欧洲的6个考点,还说这样做不会影响我们,”威尔逊说。“12月7日,ETS的项目主管和首席财务官亲自登门,跟我商量这件事。他们开门见山地说,ETS准备关闭116个考点。他们来这里不是为了寻求我们的意见,而是来下达通知的。”

    ETS的决定破坏了威尔逊走向全球的雄心。但根据他与ETS签订的合同,如果他打算终止双方之间的合作关系,他必须提前两年通知对方。而现有合同的存续期只剩下短短3个星期。所以,他去了一趟位于新泽西州普林斯顿市的ETS总部,双方最终签署了一份延期两年的合同。这样,用他的话来说,GMAC就有时间“学习一大堆东西”。

    威尔逊组建了一个特别工作组,聘请博思艾伦咨询公司(Booz Allen)监督这个研究项目,还招募了11位MBA实习生详细分解ETS管理考试、下发分数等工作的各个层面。2002年年末,这项研究计划进行到一半时,他又创建了4个研究小组与ETS一起审视下一代考试技术、全球性覆盖、考试安全和客户服务等议题。“但下一代考试技术小组举棋不定,迟迟没有行动。他们不想改变,我们碰到了真正的问题。”

    让威尔逊最为烦恼的是考试的安全性。威尔逊说:“毫无疑问,我们最重要的工作之一就是要向各大商学院保证,出现在校园的那位申请人与参加考试的申请人是同一个人。” 2003年,就在GMAC继续研究ETS的工作流程时,GMAT考试爆发了有史以来最大的丑闻。一个居住在纽约、由5男1女组成的团伙因涉嫌代替其他考生参加数百次考试以换取金钱而遭到逮捕。联邦和州调查人员发现,2001年1月至2003年7月间,他们共参加了590次由ETS管理的考试。一条线报把调查人员引向了这个团伙的头目、华裔男子徐路(音译)。马里兰州哥伦比亚市一个考点的摄像头拍摄到了他的可疑行为,而这个地方距离位于弗吉尼亚州泰森斯角的GMAC总部并不算远。

    “他当时假装是在为自己考试,正在企图用一个隐藏在桌子下面的摄像头捕捉问题,”威尔逊回忆说。“我们拿到了他的硬盘,随即发现他和其他几位枪手一直在东北部地区代替别人参加考试。他参加了160多次,有时候是戴着一头拙劣的假发替某位女生考试,有时候是代替某位男生。他通常使用伪造的驾照或护照来掩盖自己的身份。”

    但在如何处理这个问题上,威尔逊和ETS官员很快就产生了冲突。“ETS打算向相关院校递送一份中立性的标准考试成绩取消函,”威尔逊说。“成绩被取消可能出于各种各样的原因,考试期间停电,技术故障,考生不小心把百事可乐(Pepsi)洒在了键盘上,或者考试中途生病,都有可能导致考试成绩作废。但他们就是不愿意听从我们的建议,觉得没必要解释取消这些申请人成绩的具体原因。”

    震怒之下的威尔逊亲自致电所有收到成绩单的商学院,逐一向每位院长说明真相。他详细解释了徐路及其朋友被抓捕的过程,以及为什么说这160位申请人(这份名单源自徐路的计算机硬盘)的成绩不真实。“一位院长说,‘还有这样的奇事?我们正在进行新生训练营活动,我们还在纳闷为什么这个GMAT成绩这么优秀的学生竟然难以应对如此简单的任务。’还有一个家伙正在帮助一位负责学生行为准则的院长从事暑期实习工作,” 威尔逊说。但由于缺乏证据,这些涉嫌作弊者最终并没有受到惩处。

    GMAC随后开始采用公开招标的方式选择业务合作伙伴。ETS与其他三家对手展开竞争,最终失去了它的合同。涌现出的赢家是培生VUE专业考试服务中心(Pearson VUE),后者的母公司培生集团(Pearson Plc)是全球最大的商业考试服务公司和教育出版商。威尔逊与总部设在爱荷华州的美国大学入学测试中心(ACT)签订了测试开发合同,培生VUE则接手了考试管理和分销业务。

    与ETS的决裂导致GMAC的员工人数大幅增加。如今,这个组织已经具备了独立进行测试设计、研发、营销和技术支持的能力。“我们必须开始管理我们自己的研究工作,以构建我们自己的测试题,所以我们又增添了一个心理测验小组,”威尔逊解释说。“我们建立了一种更有效的算法来选择问题。”

    威尔逊成功地抵挡住了ETS发起的市场份额抢夺战——2011年,ETS开始推广研究生入学考试(GRE),希望它能够代替GMAT考试。ETS最近承认,只有2%的受访者参加了这项以申请MBA项目为目标的考试。威尔逊奋勇向前,于2012年推出了下一代GMAT考试,其中包含一块名为“集成推理”( Integrated Reasoning)的全新内容,旨在测试申请人的信息评估能力。为了让这部分内容融入考试,GMAC进行了逾3年之久的研发工作,参考了几十位商学院院长、招生官员、教师和公司招聘主管的意见,共花费了大约1,100万美元。

    谈到考生如何提高应试能力,GMAC要比ETS坦率得多。当笔者提到ETS曾经对GMAT应考者说他们其实不必全身心地投入备考时,威尔逊发出一阵大笑。“如果你认真准备,你的成绩自然会提高,这是毫无疑问的。这是件好事。这项考试跟任何体育项目或其他技能是一样的道理。”GMAC自己的研究表明,认真学习60到100小时有望促使考生的平均成绩提高30分。“有些人的成绩飙涨了100分,那是因为他们此前压根就没有做过任何准备,”威尔逊补充说。今年1月1日,前惠普公司(HP)高管桑吉特•舒夫拉正式接任GMAC首席执行官一职。

    业界一致认为,威尔逊交出了一份特别出彩的答卷。在他的任职期内,GMAC成长为一家高度专业化、拥有稳健财务基础的组织。“我会给他打一个你能想象的最高分,”威尔逊的前任比尔•布勒扎姆勒说。“我们那时候几乎没有员工,也没有基础设施,合作伙伴只有ETS一家。我认为它已经走到尽头。是大卫把这家组织带向了完全不同的方向,这个做法非常正确。”

    但他的继任者却面临着很大的不确定性。GMAC能否找到一种测试考生创新精神和创造力的方式?在新兴经济体不那么昂贵的替代考试方案咄咄逼人的攻势下,GMAT能否继续生存下去?免费的大规模在线开放课程(MOOC)是否将从根本上减少参加入学考试的必要性?不过,拜威尔逊所赐,舒夫拉继承了一家拥有雄厚财力的强大组织,足以帮助他经受住任何一场风暴的考验。

    当我问威尔逊在担任总裁兼CEO的18年里,他最为骄傲的成就是什么时,他立刻把这些成就归功于这支由他一手打造的团队。“我设法找到了全世界最好的150位精英,”他说。“正是在他们多年来的大力协助下,我才走到了今天。”

    但他还成功创造了一家规模大幅增长的非营利性组织。目前的GMAC员工数量是他履新时的30倍,其中包括好几位薪酬极其丰厚的高管。有人最近让一位杰出的商学院院长猜测威尔逊一年能挣多少钱,他说40万美元左右吧。其实,这个数字还不到这位GMAC总裁兼首席执行官2012年总薪酬的五分之一。(财富中文网)

    译者:叶寒

    One powerful trend that Wilson had in his favor was the meteoric growth of the MBA degree. Some four decades ago, U.S. colleges graduated near equal numbers of lawyers and MBAs. Today, MBA grads outnumber J.D. grads by nearly four to one. And with many law schools struggling to fill classes, that ratio is likely to tip further in favor of the MBA. Outside the U.S., the growth in both business schools and the degree has exploded.

    For the past 18 years, until Dec. 31, when Wilson retired as GMAC's top official, he had been the most visible cheerleader for the MBA degree. As he puts it, "What the MBA allows people to do is to build a foundation. You can use the degree to change your career or to accelerate your career."

    Once in charge of GMAC, Wilson immediately applied his accounting skills to his biggest cost center, ETS. Among other things, he noticed that ETS was selling 140,000 copies of three guidebooks with the GMAC imprimatur. "I couldn't understand how you could sell that many copies each year and lose money," says Wilson. It was largely because two of the guidebooks -- on schools and financial aid -- were money losers, and in this pre-Amazon era, ETS was responding to fax requests to ship copies of the books. Wilson also put the organization's money management to bid and moved that task away from the testing contractor.

    Despite the group's limited resources at the time, he also pushed forward to eliminate the rather limiting paper-and-pencil test and move to a computer exam that would adapt to each test taker's answers. The effort cost GMAC between $10 million and $12 million, but once GMAC was able to launch its new test in 1997, the organization could deliver the same exam everywhere, every day.

    The single biggest contributor to the growth of the organization took place in 2003, when GMAC broke with ETS. Some 12 years later, Wilson vividly recalls the details of the rupture. On Nov. 11, 2001, he received a phone call from the CEO of the testing service. "He said they were closing six test sites in Europe and it wouldn't affect me," says Wilson. "On Dec. 7, the head of the program and the CFO would come and talk to me about it. When they came down, they said they were closing 116 sites. They weren't there to seek our input. They were there to advise us."

    ETS' decision undermined Wilson's global ambitions. But his contract with the firm required him to give ETS two years notice if he wanted to fire them. The existing contract would end in just three weeks. So he went to ETS' Princeton, N.J., headquarters to negotiate a two-year extension so GMAC could, in his words, "learn a whole lot more."

    Wilson put together a task force, hired Booz Allen to oversee the study project, and brought aboard 11 MBA interns to take apart every facet of what ETS actually did to administer the test and deliver the scores. Half way through the study, at the end of 2002, he created four study groups to examine together with ETS such issues as next-generation technology for the exam, global reach, test security, and customer service. "But the next generation group kicked it down the road like a tin can. They didn't want to change, and we had real issues."

    What troubled Wilson more than any other issue was the security of the test. "Without a doubt, one of the most important things we do is provide schools with the assurance that the candidate who shows up on campus is the same candidate who took the test," says Wilson. In 2003, as GMAC's study of ETS and its procedures continued, the biggest scandal in the history of the GMAT erupted. A New York-based ring of five men and one woman were arrested for taking the test hundreds of times on behalf of other test takers in exchange for money. Federal and state investigators found that between January 2001 and July 2003, they sat for a total of 590 exams administered by ETS. A tip led investigators to the ringleader, Chinese-born Lu Xu, who was filmed on camera at a test center in Columbia, Md., not far from GMAC's headquarters in Tysons Corner, Va.

    "He was testing as himself in this case, and he was trying to capture questions with a camera velcroed underneath the desk," recalls Wilson. "We got his hard drive and discovered that he and a cadre of proxy test takers would take the exam up and down the northeast," recalls Wilson. "He [Xu] took it 160-odd times, sometimes for a lady, when he wore a bad wig, and sometimes for a man. He took the test with a forged driver's license or a passport."

    Quickly, however, a conflict arose between Wilson and ETS officials over how to handle the problem. "ETS wanted to send a standard neutral test cancellation score letter to the schools," says Wilson. "Scores get cancelled for all kinds of reasons. You could have a brown out. You could have a tech failure. You could have somebody spill Pepsi on a keyboard, or you could have a candidate get sick partway through the test. But they would not change the letter for us to explain why these candidates had their scores cancelled."

    Furious, Wilson says he personally called the deans of every business school to which the scores were sent and told them the truth. He explained how Xu and his friends were caught and how the scores for the 160 applicants -- retrieved from Xu's computer hard drive -- were bogus. "One dean said, 'That is fascinating," says Wilson. "'We are just now in our boot camp and we can't figure why this one guy who scored well on the test is struggling so much on the easy stuff.' Another guy was doing a summer internship for the dean on ethics." The suspected cheaters weren't corralled, however, because of a lack of evidence.

    GMAC put the business up for grabs. ETS fought it out with three other rivals and lost its contract. The emerging winner was Pearson VUE, a part of Pearson Plc, the largest commercial testing company and education publisher in the world. Wilson contracted with ACT (American College Testing) based in Iowa for the development of the test, while Pearson took over the administration and distribution of the exam.

    The break with ETS led to a substantial increase in staff for GMAC. Today, the organization has in-house capability to do test design, research, marketing, and technology support. "We had to start managing our own research to build our own test questions so we added a psychometric group," explains Wilson. "We built a more efficient algorithm for choosing the questions."

    Wilson successfully fended off an aggressive effort by ETS to grab market share away when it began in 2011 to promote the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as an alternative to the GMAT. ETS conceded recently that only 2% of surveyed respondents sat for its exam with the objective of applying to an MBA program. Wilson plowed ahead, launching in 2012 a next-generation GMAT exam with a new section called Integrated Reasoning, which measures a candidate's ability to evaluate information. In an R&D effort lasting more than three years and involving dozens of business school deans, admissions officials, faculty, and corporate recruiters, GMAC spent $11 million to get the section into the test.

    All these changes occurred while GMAC became far more candid than ETS ever was about a test taker's ability to improve their performance on the test. Reminded that ETS used to tell prospective students that they couldn't really study for the exam, Wilson lets out a laugh. "There's no question that you can do better on the test if you study for it. That's a good thing. It's like any sport or any skill." GMAC's own research shows that 60 to 100 hours of study can improve a person's score by an average of 30 points. "There are some who jump by 100 points because they hadn't prepped at all," adds Wilson, who was succeeded as CEO on Jan. 1 by Sangeet Chowfla, a former executive at HP (HPQ).

    By all accounts, Wilson has done a spectacular job in making GMAC a highly professional organization with a secure financial footing. "I would give him the highest grade you could imagine," says Bill Broesamle, Wilson's predecessor at GMAC. "We had little staff, no infrastructure, and no reach beyond ETS. I think it had run its course. Dave was right to go in a much different direction."

    For his successor, there is much uncertainty at GMAC. Can the organization find a way to test for innovation and creativity in prospective students? Will the exam survive competition from less expensive alternatives in emerging economies? Will the inevitable unbundling of education through free MOOC courses and online programs lessen the need for an entry exam altogether? If anything, thanks to Wilson, Chowfla has inherited a stable and strong organization with the financial clout to weather a storm.

    Ask Wilson what his proudest accomplishment is over the 18 years he served as president and CEO and he will immediately give credit to the team he put together. "I managed to find 150 of the best people in the world," he says, "and they have pretty much carried me over the years."

    But he has also managed to create a significantly larger non-profit, with 30 times the number of employees he inherited, along with some very generously compensated employees. When a prominent business school dean was recently asked to guess what Wilson made in a year, he said about $400,000, which is not much more than one fifth of the reported compensation for GMAC's president and CEO in 2012.

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