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MBA Apps Take A Shocking Plunge

BY: JOHN A. BYRNE | Poets & Quants


To paraphrase Charles Dickens, MBA demand has largely been a tale of two MBA markets in recent years. Many second-tier business schools have struggled in recent years to recruit candidates to their full-time MBA programs, while the more highly ranked MBA programs have generally reported ever increasing numbers of applicants to their programs.

Not any more. MBA applications at many of the most highly selective business schools in the U.S. are plunging, in many cases by double digits. An analysis of preliminary 2017-2018 application data by Poets&Quants reveals some shocking declines. At Rice University’s Jones Graduate School, for example, candidates to the school’s full-time programs plummeted by 27.7% to just 587 applications from 813 a year earlier.

At the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin, applications fell 19.6%. At the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, applicants declined by 18.3%. Applications dipped 16.2% at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, while they fell 13.2% at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business (see below table).


Many schools have yet to release numbers, including Harvard, Stanford, MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth and Northwestern Kellogg, but declines are expected in applications to their MBA programs as well. It is known, for example, that Harvard Business School apps fell below 10,000 this past year, from a near record 10,351 in 2016-2017. Wharton has already disclosed a 6.7% drop in applications for 2017-2018. UC-Berekeley’s Haas School of Business saw a 7% decline.

The declines, moreover, appear to be across the board, though the severity of the drops vary from school to school. At Yale University’s School of Management, applications fell 7.6% to 3,785 from 4,098. At the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, MBA apps are down by 8.5% to 3,188 from 3,485. At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, applicants fell by 6.2% to 3,557 from 3,796 a year earlier.

Many of these highly selective schools have deep applicant pools and are still turning away the vast majority of those who apply to their programs. So school officials say that this year’s drop has not had an impact on the overall quality of their latest incoming classes. And in some cases the falloff is occurring after several years of growth. “We were coming down off of a ten-year high in applications,” points out Tina Mabley, assistant dean of the full-time MBA program at McCombs. “We had been going up when some other schools were experiencing drops. So it hasn’t been that much of a concern.” At McCombs, she says, most of the decline was in international applicants.


Still, those drops have significantly boosted acceptance rates. At Rice’s Jones School, ranked in the top 25 for its MBA program by Poets&Quants, the admit rate jumped to 39.2% from 27.0% a year ago. The acceptance rate at Georgetown’s business school zoomed to 55.2% from 47.8%, while UT McCombs saw its admit rate go to 33.6% from 28.0%.

Though many admission officials were predicting declines in the 4% to 5% range this year, largely because of fewer international applicants applying to U.S. schools, the drops are far more severe and troubling. There are several obvious culprits for the downswing, but many business school officials are largely blaming the political climate in the U.S. For the first time ever, fewer than half the prospective students for a full-time MBA program now want to study in the U.S., according to the most recent survey of prospective students by the Graduate Management Admission Council.

“There’s no doubt that immigration policy is having a negative impact on U.S. business schools,” says William Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School and the new chair of GMAC. “You’ve seen growth in business schools outside the U.S., but the U.S. is losing the pipeline of talent. If we are going to maintain our reputation for having the best business schools in the world, we have to be able to attract the best and brightest in the world. Student mobility has become a big issue (see Fuqua Dean: Immigration Policy Hurting U.S. Business Schools).”


The GMAC report found that 47% have a preference for the U.S. now, down nine percentage points from 56% in 2016. Meantime, Western Europe has become significantly more popular. Today, 33% of would-be, full-time MBA students prefer to study in Western Europe, up seven percentage points from last year’s 26%. In a single year, the European schools have closed the gap between them and the U.S. by an astounding 16 percentage points.

Rice University’s business school sufferred one of the largest declines — a 27.7% year-over-year drop in full-time MBA applications — exacerbated by last August’s Hurricane Harvey which dumped 51 inches of rain on greater Houston in two days. The catastrophic storm shut down everything. “We were completely underwater,” recalls George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs for the Jones Graduate School of Business. “We had two weeks of cancelled classes and we missed two months of international travel for recruiting events internationally last fall.”

At first, the early declines were attributed to the disruption caused by Harvey. But then, the numbers continued to fall. “One hundred percent of our decline was international,” adds Andrews, “with applications from India and China down by 40%, give or take a percent. Our domestic applications were actually up. When we talked with other schools about the falloff, the political climate was something  that got mentioned regularly.”


Anti-immigration rhetoric along with greater uncertainty over work visas have scared off many international applicants. But Andrews says it is even worse than that. “Many prospective candidates talked about knowing friends who were having trouble getting back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries. The perception is that they were being harrassed with more searches at airports. If they got a student visa, there was a real worry that they wouldn’t be able to finish the program.”

Some admitted students from overseas, in fact, have even had trouble obtaining student visas once admitted.  “We had three students who were ready to enter the class struggle with visas this year,” says Mabley at McCombs. “One ultimately came through but two didn’t and had to delay their plans to attend the program. This is the first time we ever had students denied visas to come to school.”

Of course, that is for students who were admitted. Many more internationals aren’t even trying. “Trump is scaring off internationals from considering an MBA in the U.S.,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions firms. Shinewald’s firm has seen the number of free consultations given to potential Indian applicants fall by half in the past year. One U.S. school recently held an infomation session for its MBA program in Paris and drew only three people, down from a more typical 30-person crowd, Shinewald notes.


The strength of the U.S. economy, meantime, isn’t helping things. Strong economies depress MBA application volume. With the U.S. near full employment, professionals have plenty of job opportunities without having to pursue a graduate degree.  And during economic downturns, when layoffs occur, many young professionals seek refuge in school.

GMAC’s survey of prospective students this year found that employment has become a formidable alternative to going back to school for a graduate degree in business. GMAC estimates that seven of every ten prospective students in North America are considering alternatives to business school to achieve their goals. In Asia-Pacific, it’s even worse. Some 74%, vs. the 70% in the U.S., see alternatives to business school.

“Employment is the biggest competitor to business school,” according to GMAC’s Prospective Student Report published in May. “Sixty-one percent of prospective students are considering pursuing a new job and 43% are considering remaining in their current job as an alternative to business school (see chart below). “More employers are saying you don’t need an MBA,” notes Dawna Levenson, director of MIT Sloan admissions. While that may be self-serving advice to keep strong employees in place, it has the impact of keeping them out of the applicant pool.


“The strong economy does account for some of the drop,” agrees Andrews at Rice. “We’ve heard from some in Korea where the economy is also doing well that they are waiting. International schools also continue to improve and the ability to get a good education and not travel to the U.S. is better than it has ever been. We heard a lot of people say they were looking at Canada instead of the U.S.  and Europe as well.” At the University of Toronto’s Rotman School, MBA applications were up another 9% this year after a more sizable jump in the previous year.

And when millenials do look at MBA and other business graduate degrees, the sticker prices of these programs are causing second thoughts. “The cost of a graduate business degree and the need to take on student debt have the biggest potential impact and are the most likely to divert candidates from the B-school pipeline,” GMAC found.

So while more schools are dangling more scholarship dollars in front of their their MBA candidates than ever before, those discounts are not evident to would-be applicants who only see the rising costs of MBA tuition and fees and the loss of nearly two years of income they would have to give up to attend an on-campus program.


“Overall, about one in four of prospective students say that having to take on large debts and requiring more money than is available may prevent their plans to pursue graduate management. Another big reservation is fear of what the economy may be like when candidates graduate and how it may impact their job outlook. Additionally, others have reservations about having to delay attractive job opportunities.”

As is often the case, there also are a few schools that appear to be bucking the downward trend. At Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, applications rose by 17.6% this past year to 1,348 from 1,146. At UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, apps were up 3.3% to 3,423 from 3,314, and at USC’s Marshall School, they inched up a single percent to 2,017 from 1,998. Those schools are clear exceptions this year when just about everyone else has seen application volume shrink.

In fact, MBA admission consultants are advising their international clients not to expect an H1B visa if they come to the U.S. “We have been actively discouraging applicants who see the MBA as a guaranteed path to U.S. work eligibility and eventually a Green Card,” says David White of Menlo Coaching, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. ” There may be further drops coming, since some of the applicants inquiring with us would otherwise have been ready to apply to U.S. MBA programs thinking it would get them the H-1B.”

Is a prompt turnaround even possible? “There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now,” says Mabley. “If I had a crystal ball, I would play the stock market more. So I just don’t know. But the viability of the degree is still there and students are using the MBA in a variety of ways today. I think it will maintain its value for that reason.”