Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that even elite U.S. MBA programs experienced a steep drop in the number of applications they received in the 2018-2019 admissions cycle compared to the year before. The business schools at Dartmouth, Yale, Northwestern, and Duke each reported double-digit percentage drops in applications compared to the prior year, and even the most prestigious programs such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia were affected. The declines continue the downward trend for the MBA. The Wall Street Journal also reported new data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which shows application numbers falling for the fifth straight year. The admissions cycle that ended in the spring of this year garnered 135,096 applications for programs including the MBA; a total year-over-year decrease of 9.1 percent, which is larger than the previous year’s decline of 7 percent.
Though the declining applications are attributed to many factors, of primary concern is the perceived change in environment for international students and immigrants. Currently, in the U.S., 85,000 H-1B visas are issued annually to highly-skilled workers via lottery with the demand far exceeding the supply. According to the Wall Street Journal, under the Trump Administration, there have been an increasing number of requests for H-1B visa applicants to provide supplemental information and many are still being declined. Prospective students’ concerns about the availability of work visas post-graduation are impacting their school selection. The Wall Street Journal quotes Matthew J. Slaughter, dean of the Tuck School at Dartmouth: “A lot of individuals, a lot of terrific international applicants, they’re choosing not to apply to any U.S. schools,” he said.
This is evident in the 13.7 percent decline in international applications seen this year for U.S. programs. According to a GMAC report released last week, Early Warning Signals: Winners and Losers in the Global Race for Talent, the U.S. experienced, “a steeper decline than any other country in the world, and a drop that came amidst largely rising or stable applications everywhere else in the world.” Both Canada and Europe reported increases in the number of international applicants in 2019. And Chinese business schools reported a 5.2 percent increase in applicant numbers, though it was driven primarily by domestic demand. While China still sends the largest number of business school students abroad, Chinese applicants are increasingly opting to attend school in Asia.
The GMAC report highlights the changes in international demand for U.S. business programs as a leading indicator for international talent mobility, suggesting that while business schools may be experiencing the negative effects now, the U.S. workforce may suffer losses in talent and productivity in future years. The report states, “Indeed, immigrants play an outsized role in innovation and entrepreneurial activity. According to a Brookings Institution study, ‘…while immigrants represent about 15 percent of the general US workforce, they account for around a quarter of entrepreneurs and a quarter of inventors in the US. Moreover, over a third of new firms have at least one immigrant entrepreneur in its initial leadership team.’ For startup firms valued at $1 billion or more, in particular, immigrants have started more than half, and they play key management and product development roles in more than 80 percent of these companies.”
The GMAC report goes on to recommend policies that the U.S. can adopt to safeguard its talent pipeline in future years, while also bolstering international applicants to U.S. business schools. These include updating the visa regulations by removing “per-country” visa caps and reforming the H-1B visa program, as well as creating a “Heartland Visa,” which encourages immigration into regions of the country that could most benefit from injections of talented individuals. Fifty business school deans and 13 CEOs have signed an accompanying open letter that endorses the policy recommendations of the GMAC report and, more broadly, calls for a change in the U.S. approach to high-skilled immigration. Bill Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, while expressing optimism about the future of U.S. business schools to the Wall Street Journal, notes that schools will need to continue to change to address the current environmental challenges. “The pipeline of talent to the U.S. is being diverted elsewhere. We see a pattern that is really alarming,” Boulding said.