Applications to MBA programs hold steady after 2020’s ‘boom’ year

BY Mary LowengardNovember 29, 2021, 2:38 PM
A class underway in Gleason Hall at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, in September 2021.
Libby March—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The volume of applications to B-school programs in 2021 was more or less on par with 2020, when a three-year downward trend was reversed, according to an annual survey of application trends among nearly 1,000 business schools conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). While no change may not seem like news worth heralding, it demonstrates a sustained reversal that GMAC officials believe is sustainable through 2022.

Global demand for a graduate business degree increased 0.4% compared with 2020, thanks to schools reporting growth in the number of applications from international students; women candidates applying to two-year, full-time MBA programs; and among underrepresented minorities. These are some of the conclusions from the comprehensive report, which offers a wealth of data for analysis. 

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After a “boom year” in 2020, the 2021 application numbers demonstrate that a “very positive reversal” has taken place from prior years, largely fueled by international candidates, notes Rahul Choudaha, industry insights and research communications director at GMAC.

India and China drive international applications

The higher numbers of international applicants come at the expense of domestic applicants, says Choudaha. And this trend is most apparent in top-ranked full-time MBA programs. Application volumes from international candidates rose 4.1%, while there was a decline of 3.8% among domestic candidates.

This trend could be sustainable through the next admissions cycle, Choudaha notes, adding that applications from India were (and continue to be) a primary source of the international surge. And now, “the China market is coming on board,” he says, which could support favorable 2022 application volumes. “China has yet to achieve its full potential,” Choudaha says, while cautioning, “there is still uncertainty about how this will play out.”

As for why the volume of applications has increased, one reason directly attributable to the pandemic is that remote or hybrid work arrangements gave young professionals motive, means, and opportunity to contemplate and explore their future career paths, says David White, founding partner and admissions consultant at Menlo Coaching. And they may even be doing so on company time.

“We have noticed that our clients are spending more time researching MBA programs and drafting more versions of the application material than in previous years,” White reports. It follows, he adds, that greater numbers of potential applicants are also taking time to consider the initial decision to apply in the first place.

Waiting for a return to normal

Another potential driver of applications in the future could be the cohort of candidates who have withheld applying because they are waiting to see if their target MBA programs will return to a full, in-person classroom, White adds. The opportunity to meet with classmates and professors face-to-face could result in an additional bump once MBA programs fully reopen, he says. 

Conversely, some people considering business school could come around to embracing a different learning structure. White suggests that at some point “applicants [may] give up and accept that MBA programs will be held in a hybrid manner ongoing, and they might as well apply immediately.”

The wait-and-see phenomenon among potential applicants is real, confirms Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions firm. She also points out that the increase in applications from women and underrepresented minorities reflects motivation on the part of B-schools to embrace and actively encourage a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) mission.

DEI emphasis starting to make a difference

Gender parity in business school has made progress in recent months. In the fall of 2021, Wharton announced it had enrolled the first female-majority class among the M7 schools, or the Magnificent 7. Harvard Business School’s class of 2023 is made up of 47% women, while Stanford Graduate School of Business is at 44%, though down from 47% the previous year. However, gender equity is a tougher goal to reach when the full array of program options offered (including online, part-time, and executive) are factored in, beyond traditional two-year, full-time MBA programs.

Aggarwal offers three examples of top-ranked MBA programs that have a clear diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) emphasis in their application materials. The application for the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley asks candidates the mandatory short-answer question: “Can you please describe any experience or exposure you have in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion, whether through community organizations, personal, or in the workplace?”

Similarly Kellogg School of Management approaches DEI on its candidate recommendation form via the following question: “Kellogg has a diverse student body and values students who are inclusive and encouraging of others with differing perspectives and backgrounds. Please tell us about a time when you witnessed the candidate living these values.” 

Finally, at MIT Sloan, candidates invited to interview are asked to articulate a specific example of the candidate’s commitment to DEI. “DEI is a popular topic among business schools this year,” the website clearadmit.com observes.

Columbia Business School and the University of Washington Foster School of Business also have introduced DEI essay options in their applications for the 2021–22 cycle, according to clearadmit.com.

The role of the economy, pandemic, and president

That schools are seeing applications from a more diverse cohort of candidates and international students really shouldn’t come as a surprise. “The conclusions of the study are not groundbreaking,” asserts Esther Magna, principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting. “These are essentially modest changes that reflect the pandemic-created heightened demand for 2020 applications that most felt was the result of job uncertainty and people seeking to take a break.” 

The economy was also a major factor driving demand for business school, and just like in 2008, applications rose among people who lost their jobs or considered ways to ride out the instability, Magna notes. In addition, there are positive benefits resulting from the 2020 election results, and “a president and administration that are proponents of a global talent pool coming to the U.S.,” Magna says.

The Great Resignation at play

The so-called Great Resignation also deserves some credit, as many workers quit their jobs in the hopes of reimagining their work and career goals. This phenomenon affects the mix of candidates who hail from careers outside the traditional areas that have populated business schools, such as finance and engineering.

“We are seeing an increase in clients who are focused on making an impact in their lives beyond corporate profit,” Magna reports. “A full one-third of our clients these days are in impact-related fields such as health care, education, transportation, and are considering the MBA to make their mark in these worlds.” 

Plus, people who are part of the Great Resignation are inspired to apply to graduate business programs because they know that top companies are offering top dollars for MBA grads—and this could offer further incentive for some people to leave their current positions, Magna says. Graduates from many top-ranked MBA programs start out making more than $150,000, though some alums of New York University’s Stern School of Business are noted to be earning upwards of $225,000 and Stanford grads entering the field of private equity are documented to have cracked $400,000

And even if the pace of MBA applications slows down for some reason, that’s not likely to affect the best of the best programs, like the so-called M7, which offer a higher guarantee of employability, job security, and a hefty paycheck

“The M7 programs are always going to see demand for their full-time two-year programs,” Magna says. “This is because candidates realize they are investing in themselves in a world-recognized brand.”

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