Business School

Even Elite U.S. MBA Programs Experience Application Drop as International Students Look to Study Elsewhere

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. 

UNC Kenan Flagler Provides Alumni with Strategies to Avoid Post-MBA Burnout

Earlier this month, the Financial Times published an article on workplace wellbeing and burnout. The article included the results of a reader survey on how employers support employees’ mental health. Two-thirds said that their work had a somewhat to extremely negative effect on their health. Forty-four percent said that they did not think their organization took mental health seriously and half said that they either didn’t know where at work to go or had nowhere to go if they needed support. While the survey respondents were self-selecting, the results show a significant issue with employer support of mental health, including stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression.

 The article warns us that the problem runs across sectors, but may be particularly relevant to graduates of law, business, and medical schools; the authors note that “Fields such as law, finance, and consulting seem particularly prone to intense, demanding workplace cultures, but the issue affects people in all sectors. One doctor dies by suicide every day in the US.” Similarly, Blind, an anonymous social app for tech employees, surveyed its users in May 2018 and 57 percent of the 11, 487 respondents said that they were burned out. Only five of the 30 tech companies represented had an employee burnout rate below 50 percent, and 16 of the companies had a burnout rate higher than the average (57 percent). Later surveys, also by Blind, found that 52 percent of tech workers responded that they do not have a “healthy work environment” and that 39 percent of tech workers said they were depressed.

The FT survey also found that reasons behind burnout clustered into four themes: overwork, cultural stigma, pressure from the top, and fear of being penalized. The article suggested that many experts point to an epidemic of overwork resulting from the common expectation that employees be available and responsive to client needs 24/7. “In his book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer posits that this crisis is getting worse over time, amid stagnating wage growth and an increasing reliance on the gig economy. ‘We are on a path that is completely unsustainable,’ Pfeffer says. ‘The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] tells you that chronic illness is 86 percent of the $2.7tn US healthcare spend. Many come from stress-related behaviours. If you’re going to solve the healthcare cost crisis, a piece of that solution has to go through the workplace.’”

In an acknowledgment of the intense positions that many post-MBA graduates find themselves in, Robert Goldberg, an affiliate UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty member, recently led an interactive session for UNC alumni to build awareness of and strategies for preventing burnout.

First, Goldberg encouraged alumni to explore various “energy zones” which, described below, he adapted from The Power of Full Engagement (Loehr & Schwartz, 2003).

  • Performance zone: Passionate, enthusiastic, engaged, optimistic, alive, challenged, and absorbed

  • Survival zone: Anxious, impatient, angry, irritable, defensive, fearful, and frustrated

  • Burnout zone: Hopeless, exhausted, sad, discouraged, lost, empty, worried, and depleted

  • Recovery zone: Calm, peaceful, grateful, relaxed, receptive, relieved, rested, and renewed

Goldberg said that to stay in the performance zone, you must enter the recovery zone before you enter burnout. As such, those in intense professions may need to spend time recovering every working day. This can be done using various energy management techniques, including physical (stepping away from the desk at regular intervals), mental (prioritizing competing demands), emotional (feeling valued and appreciated), and spiritual (connecting work to higher purpose). 

Finally, Goldberg addressed the importance of “personal resilience” to maintain strong performance, defining resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, and successful after something bad happens.”

Goldberg shared the following five factors, summarized below, for building resilience capability:

  • Perspective: Take some space to view a situation, accepting the negative aspects and finding opportunities. “Recognize what can be changed and what can’t.”

  • Emotional intelligence: Become present in your emotions and name what you’re feeling. Don’t feel guilt or shame over the emotions that you experience, but give yourself time and space to process them.

  • Purpose, values, strengths: Be aware of the purpose that you find in your work, and how it relates to your larger moral compass. Use this awareness to stay centered during chaotic times.

  • Connections: Form relationships with your friends and colleagues and give and receive support from this network.

  • Managing physical energy: Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat well, and have hobbies and activities to engage in apart from your work.

Graduate students, particularly within business, law, and medical school, may want to consider incorporating these strategies into their lives now. Building healthy and sustainable stress management habits, within the hectic graduate school environment, will be good preparation for managing career stress, avoiding burnout, and maintaining wellness in the future.