Out of the Dot-Coms, Into the Classroom

May/June 2002

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Charlie Shufeldt is the quintessential dot-com guy. He left Stanford as a sophomore in 1999 to co-found a start-up that would provide online trail maps for hikers—a sort of MapQuest for the outdoor set. As CEO of, Shufeldt raised venture capital, oversaw the expansion of the company from three to 40 employees and moved the firm’s operations from Atlanta to Portland, Ore.

But in March 2000, the NASDAQ began its tailspin and Trailworks got caught in the downturn. “The landscape changed,” Shufeldt remembers. “It was impossible to get anyone to commit more money.” As the executives began to look for someone to buy the company, the market continued to deteriorate. On several occasions, acquisition talks fell apart in the late stages. In July 2000, Shufeldt had to lay off all but four of his staff.

Shufeldt says he had always intended to return to Stanford. The downturn helped him figure out when. “By August 2000,” he says, “I knew that the days of 20-year-old CEOs were over and a Stanford education was worth a lot more than any additional time I could spend working.” He took advantage of Stanford’s liberal stop-out policy (“we accept [undergraduates in good standing] back whether [they’ve been gone] one week, one month, one decade or longer,” says Dean of Students Marc Wais) and re-enrolled immediately.

Shufeldt is not alone. Although the University does not track the number of undergraduates who return after leaves of absence, nearly everyone, it seems, knows someone who is coming back to finish a degree after being bruised by the dot-com crash. The softened economy also has influenced many people to seek refuge in graduate school, and several of Stanford’s programs, particularly in law, business and computer science, have seen double-digit increases in applications.

The Law School is accustomed to seeing more applications during recessions. This year, the number went up 10.2 percent, from 4,275 to 4,712. “This is a big jump,” says associate dean for admissions and financial aid Faye Deal. “I suspect it is directly attributable to the economy.” But Stanford’s increase is less than that of other law schools. Deal says colleagues at East Coast schools and at California public universities have seen applications rise 30 to 40 percent. She thinks some applicants may be reluctant to pay private-school tuition during tough economic times, and others—particularly those in the heavily populated Northeast corridor—prefer to stay closer to home. “This still doesn’t beat the early ’90s,” Deal says. “We had 6,000 applications then.”

During the height of the most recent economic boom, applications to the Business School’s MBA program decreased. This year, MBA applications went up 10 percent—back to a normal pre-boom level. It might seem as if some people were making too much money to bother with a graduate degree. But assistant dean and director of MBA admissions Derrick Bolton, MA/MBA ’98, doesn’t see it that way. “We are pleased with the quality of the applications,” he says. “We think these are people who would have been applying whether the NASDAQ was at 5,000 or 3,000.”

In electrical engineering, administrators have received about 100 more applications for master’s and doctoral programs than last year—an increase of approximately 7 percent, according to director of student services and admissions Kimberley Ashley. But nowhere is the growth in graduate-school applications more dramatic than in computer science. Last year, there were 574 applications for the PhD program. This year, the department was flooded with 876—a 52.6 percent increase. And, says Jennifer Widom, an associate professor who chairs the department’s PhD admissions committee, the applications are high quality. “There was some speculation that all the extra ones would be at the bottom of the pile, but that wasn’t the case.”

For Widom, there’s an additional upside: due to the economic shift, she is less worried that students she has mentored for several years will leave school before finishing their degrees. During the boom years of 1998 to 2000, almost every professor working in a lucrative field (such as databases, Widom’s area of research) lost one or two graduate students to industry. “For me personally, that’s the good news, that my PhD students aren’t going to disappear,” she says.

For their part, students hope that adding a degree to their résumé will bolster their chances with employers—or at least that the job market will improve by the time they get out of school. Things have already worked out for Charlie Shufeldt. After he graduates in June, he’ll join Bank of America’s private equity placement group—and assist start-ups trying to raise venture capital.

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