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. 

Reduced International Demand for U.S. Business Schools and a Robust Economy Create a Beneficial Environment for Applicants

New data released this month from the General Management Admissions Council (GMAC) shows that U.S. graduate business schools are still suffering from a decrease in international applicants. Just under half, 48 percent, of U.S. programs reported in the GMAC Preliminary Application Trends Survey that they had received fewer international applications at this point compared to the same time last year. This survey, which collects mid-cycle application data from graduate business schools, includes data from over 700 graduate business programs around the world. Among full-time two-year MBA programs in the U.S., about 68 percent reported application declines from international students, while another 9 percent reported that applications were flat. Fewer than a quarter of the programs reported that applications were up. Among the 68 percent reporting declines, almost one-third of respondents reported that the applications were significantly down, 17 percent reported moderate declines, and 19 percent reported slight declines.

This report coincides with data that GMAC released last week from the Prospective Students’ Survey. While prospective students’ plans to apply to international programs have stayed relatively flat over the last few years, hovering around 58 percent, there have been changes in students’ location preferences. Among applicants who plan to apply to international programs (not within their country of residence), 62 percent plan to apply in Western Europe, with U.S. programs following at 61 percent. While the percentages are close, this is a switch from 2017 when the U.S. was the most named location at 63 percent followed by Western Europe at 58 percent. Prospective students were also asked to select their one most preferred location. Both the U.S. and Western Europe received equal proportions of respondents at 40 percent each. The longer-term trend, however, shows a gradual decline in preference for the U.S. between 2009 and 2016, with a sharper downturn in the last two years to 40 percent; the exact opposite trend occurs for Western Europe, which shows a gradual increase in preference with a more marked uptick to 40 percent since 2016.

Among all candidates, those applying domestically and internationally, the U.S. is still the most popular destination to apply for an MBA. However, the percentage of all applicants planning to apply to U.S. programs declined from 2017 to 2018 by three percentage points, from 68 to 65 percent, while interest in Western Europe increased from 37 percent to 42 percent. Interest in Canadian programs increased just one point, to 20 percent.

The decrease in international student applications, combined with the strong economy, and the rising cost of MBA programs, appears to be impacting overall application volume to U.S. business schools. Poets and Quants published an article last week declaring it a “buyer’s market” for admitted students. Though acknowledging that official numbers have yet to be released, according to admissions officers, there have been lower application volumes again this year, even among the top ten schools. This makes for the second year of decreasing applications, even amongst the highly competitive programs. Admitted students are reportedly receiving higher than normal numbers of acceptances from rival schools, as well as generous scholarship offers. The Poets and Quants article quotes an unnamed admissions officer from a top-ten ranked business school as saying, “When you have this many schools down and many are down for two years in a row, yield is going to be a nightmare because everyone has had to dig deeper in the pool. I would not be surprised if schools had to go deep into their waitlists or have to shrink their classes. It’s the collective impact of so many schools being down that is unique.“ Yield, which is the total number of admitted students who matriculate into a program, is important for balancing both the selectivity and revenue components of the program. 

Application Volume Drops at Top MBA Programs in US

The Financial Times reported this week that four of the most prestigious business schools in the US saw a drop in MBA application volume for 2018 matriculation. Harvard, NYU Stern, Duke Fuqua, and Berkeley Haas each reported a decrease in applications from 2017 that ranged from 4 percent to 7.5 percent.

According to Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) data, in the US full-time two-year MBA programs’ application volumes have been in decline since 2014. However, this is not consistent across programs. In 2017, those with larger classes (201 or more students) accounted for 6 percent of MBA programs, but 55 percent of applications and 32 percent of enrollments. Larger schools were more likely to report application volume increases in 2017, while smaller were more likely to have experienced decreases. This decrease now appears to have expanded to the large, prestigious MBA programs.

While the decline in applications has not yet affected Harvard’s 11 percent acceptance rate or median GMAT score of 730, it was fairly significant at 4.5 percent. Similarly, NYU Stern reported a nearly 4 percent drop, while Duke Fuqua and Berkeley Haas were at about 6 percent and 7.5 percent respectively.

In contrast, MBA application numbers globally continue to increase. “When looked at internationally, graduate business education is a growth stock. Applications to Canadian, European, and Asian schools are increasing at an enormous rate,” said Bill Boulding, Dean of Duke Fuqua. Other admissions representatives who spoke with the Financial Times pointed out a multi-faceted cause for the lower application rates in the US:

  • Decreasing numbers of international applicants to US schools, due to a less welcoming political climate, as well as increasingly rigid immigration requirements.

  • Increasingly competitive European and Asian MBAs, offered in English, for those wanting a global experience. Some of these well-ranked programs also offer expedited timelines.

  • Increasing tuition and a robust economic climate in the US, which increases the cost of an MBA in both direct costs and wages-lost.

  • Increasing interest in part-time, online, and/or one-year MBA programs.

Take-aways for prospective MBA students

  • If you have dual-citizenship, don’t forget to note this on your application. It could be advantageous for you in the admissions process.

  • Be sure to highlight your international experiences and interests in your application. Admissions officers want to create a diverse student body and, with fewer international applicants, these experiences are likely to stand out more.

  • Consider that in strong economic climates, with low unemployment, schools are likely to receive fewer applicants. While this may not significantly change acceptance rates at all of the most prestigious programs, it can provide some benefit with regard to both admissions likelihood, as well as the possibility for substantial merit-based scholarships.

  • Choose your MBA program carefully, rather than automatically selecting a full-time, two-year program. Learn from these trends, by thinking carefully about the type of MBA that will benefit you most. International programs, one-year or expedited programs, and part-time cohort-based programs can all be worthwhile for you and your career.