What happened to MBA candidates who deferred their admission in 2020?

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 15, 2021, 02:00 am
On the Harvard University campus in March 2020.
Jonathan Wiggs—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

While the COVID-19 pandemic opened the virtual door to education in 2020, it shut off on-campus experiences as they were previously known. Business-school hopefuls had gone through the trouble of applying to the top programs in the country, only to realize the outlook for their MBA experience appeared far different from what they had anticipated. 

As spring dragged on and the school year was fast approaching, it became more evident that large networking events, in-person lectures, and evenings spent socializing with classmates weren’t going to be a part of their full-time MBA experience. Many students also faced financial hardship and travel restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that threw a wrench in their plans.

Between 2019 and 2020, the deferral rates for MBA programs jumped from 3% to 7% owing to concerns about online learning, travel, and visas, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s 2020 Application Trends Survey. Business schools also adapted, with 57% of programs allowing students to defer entry. 

“Many, if not most schools, did end up having some sort of mercy or empathy because their lives also were disrupted,” says Maria Wich-Vila, founder of ApplicantLab, an MBA admissions software and consulting firm. “Admissions officers are human, too. They also had their lives turned upside down.”

How deferrals were granted

Traditionally, MBA programs will offer deferrals on a case-by-case basis for unforeseen conflicts such as military service and certain medical issues. Business schools took this same approach when looking at granting deferrals to students who faced challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

To accommodate students, schools such as Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago (Booth), expanded the size of their class of 2023 (students admitted in 2021) to make up for a smaller size in the 2022 classes.

HBS, one of the most coveted MBA programs in the world and ranked as No. 1 on Fortune’s list of the best full-time programs, offered all accepted students in 2020 the chance to request a deferral. Those students who asked to push their admission did roll the dice, however, on whether they would be able to enroll in 2021 or 2022. HBS agreed to consider deferrals in 2020, but at the time could not guarantee whether it would be a one- or two-year delay in enrollment.

This was the only time in HBS history that deferrals were granted, says Mark Cautela, the school’s head of communications. As a result, HBS’s most recently admitted class is its largest ever, with 1,010 students. In 2020, 732 students enrolled, which was about 200 fewer than its typical class size. Similarly, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business pushed for “doing the right thing,” by offering international students the option to request a deferral to either fall 2021 or fall 2022.

Booth, however, took a more individualized approach to granting deferrals, as it had done in the past—even though the school “received more deferral requests than ever before,” says Donna Swinford, Booth’s associate dean for student recruitment and admissions.

“Our approach was to consider every admit’s unique situation and learn more about the reason for their deferral request,” she says. “Because we offered fully remote learning and have a later start date than many schools, we were able to accommodate many of our admitted students’ concerns or limitations and welcome them to the class of 2022.”

Although some schools reported large class sizes this year, Wich-Vila doesn’t anticipate that this will be the new norm. 

“I think it’s a temporary thing,” she says. “I don’t think that they’re permanently expanding class size.” Rather, it was a way to acknowledge that it wouldn’t be fair to new applicants to have fewer spots for which to compete.

Did deferrals make the admissions process more competitive this year?

Admissions processes weren’t necessarily more competitive this year because of deferrals in 2020, Wich-Vila says. That’s because “most programs expanded temporarily to absorb those deferrals,” she adds.

Swinford says that 2020 deferrals did not affect the seats in Booth’s most recent class.

“While more students in the class of 2023 applied in a previous year, it did not impact who we were able to admit this year,” she says. “The class size will be on par with the number of people in the class of 2022.” Statistics on Booth’s class of 2023 won’t be finalized until late September.

Some schools also decided to extend their wait lists for the class of 2022, Wich-Vila says. This was intended to deepen the bench and pull people off the wait list in the event that a lot of admitted students ended up “freaking out” and declining their spot owing to the pandemic, she adds. With a larger wait list, programs were able to enroll a number of students closer to the normal amount.

Despite delays, MBA programs have welcomed students back on campus once again.

“Whether or not they had to delay their MBA plans a year, this is the next generation of Boothies who will make a positive impact on the world around us,” Swinford says. “We cannot wait to welcome all of them to campus in mid-September.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.