NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Federal regulators might not think much of big banks these days, but MBA candidates sure do.
Three investment banks made the top 15 on this year's list of companies that business students most want to work for, according to a survey compiled by Philadelphia-based research firm Universum for an exclusive CNNMoney.com list.
Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), which absorbed Merrill Lynch in 2008, was the bank that made the biggest jump, climbing to no. 25 after dropping to no. 37 last year. Credit Suisse (CS) and Barclays Capital (BCS) also made the top 25.
"Being a part of the rebuilding of the investment banking industry is really appealing," said Camille Kelly, vice president of employer branding at Universum. "The opportunity to work at a company when it's on the road to recovery is a great chance to make an impact at your first job out of school."
At the same time, the fragile job market has forced MBAs to look beyond the usual stars from Silicon Valley and Wall Street for gigs in less glamorous industries, like consumer goods. Johnson and Johnson (JNJ, Fortune 500) came in at no. 10, while Nestle (NSRGY) and Unilever (UL) moved up the list this year, to no. 29 and no. 35, respectively.
The Universum survey also showed that the priorities for MBAs have also shifted, with a growing emphasis on finding a comfortable work-life balance and intellectual stimulation. In particular, Kelly said more B-school students expressed a desire to be able to occasionally work from home.
That priority "really shot up in the rankings this year," she said, adding that it's generally not a perk available at financial services or management consulting firms.
Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) topped the list for the fourth year in a row, thanks at least in part to its success in demonstrating its own commitment to a healthy work-life balance, not to mention its famous free meals and onsite massages.
Of course, Google's flush balance sheet also makes it extremely appealing. In the most recent quarter, its profit soared 38% to $1.96 billion, and the company's stock has climbed almost 20% over the last year.
While a company's overall financial health is important to MBAs, they are less concerned this year about their own wages.
"Students are willing to take a lower salary for the first time in a long while to land at the companies where they want to work," Universum's Kelly said.
According to the survey, this year's students anticipate a lower starting salary of $94,376 on average, down $4,000 from 2009. Their anticipated income five years into their career dropped by $22,000, to $172,868.
This shift in priorities ushered in newcomers to the list like Teach for America, as well as companies like AT&T (T, Fortune 500), Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500), Hilton Hotels and Merck (MRK, Fortune 500). Gone this year are Merrill Lynch, S.C. Johnson & Son, Johnson Controls (JCI, Fortune 500), Nokia (NOK) and Mars.
Two of the country's most embattled companies dropped precipitously on this year's list, but managed to stay in the top 100: Toyota (TM) and BP (BP). The car maker, which has been rattled by a series of recalls since earlier this year, plunged to no. 80 from no. 35. But it's not clear that its current woes are responsible for the slide, since the survey was conducted between December 2009 and Mach 2010.
Likewise BP is now under fire for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Its ranking dropped from no. 60 to 81 this, even though the company's offshore well exploded a month after the survey of MBA students was completed.
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