Tuition

Declining MBA Applications Prompt Business Schools to Change Program Delivery Models

Late last month the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced its decision to shut down its two-year MBA program and reallocate funds to its online MBA. Just prior to this announcement, earlier in May, the last two-year MBA class graduated from the University of Iowa Tippie School of Management.

And they’re not the only ones. Wake Forest University, Virginia Tech, and Stetson University in Florida have also cut their two-year MBA programs. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Between 2014 and 2018, the number of accredited full-time M.B.A. programs in the U.S. shrank nine percent to 1,189, with schools reporting 119 fewer two-year degrees in the most recent survey by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.”

At the University of Illinois, the numbers told a clear story: In 2015 the incoming full-time, two-year MBA program had 74 students, in 2018 it had 49, and the current matriculation for the fall of 2019 is 38 students. Applications for the online MBA program, however, have tripled since 2016. Jeffrey Brown, dean of the business school at the University of Illinois, said the full-time MBA program will lose two million dollars this year. “This was an easy business decision to make, and a relatively easy educational decision, but it was an extremely hard call to make from the emotional side of things,” said Brown.

With the documented lackluster application volume to MBA programs and amidst a strong economy, some schools are focusing on offering competitive online MBA programs, as well as more specialized master of science degrees. The Wall Street Journal noted that among the business schools included in the aforementioned AACSB survey, there were 140 new specialized master’s programs in 2018, a 16 percent jump from 2014. And the number of online MBA programs doubled to 390.

Believing that one component of the decline in applications may be due to the steadily increasing costs of the two-year MBA, Harvard Business School and University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business have both decided to hold tuition costs steady while also increasing scholarship funds.  An article in Forbes recently noted that the “decades-long steady march of escalating price increases” has been consistent across almost all business schools and has typically exceeded the cost of inflation. The article notes that last year, tuition costs increased at variable rates from 11 percent at MIT’s Sloan to 1.6 percent at UCLA’s Anderson. Chicago Booth’s decision to freeze tuition garnered praise from Dean Edward Snyder of the Yale School of Management who said, “I think that is a brilliant move… It’s not because of weakness. It’s because of strength, and it’s the first school that is stepping back and saying we are not going to keep going down this path... It doesn’t indicate how the business model is going to get redone, but it is a signal that it needs to change.”

While online models may not be able to offer the corporate recruiting and networking opportunities, or prestige that the full-time, two-year MBA provides, the programs appear to meet a need in the market for developing business skills. And they do so with added flexibility and without the high costs of tuition and time out of the workplace.

This is good news for prospective students. The online route is providing a closer substitute for educational delivery than we’ve seen in the past. And for those still interested in the full-time, two-year model, lower application volume could mean a higher likelihood of securing both a coveted spot at a top ten school, as well as scholarship money.