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MBA Apps To U.S. Programs Dip Again

GMAC says a majority of programs in Europe, Canada, East and Southeast Asia, and India report growing volumes in 2017, while fewer than half the programs in the United States are growing — with the exception of part-time lockstep MBA and Master in Data Analytics programs

For the third straight year, full-time, two-year MBA programs in the United States have seen declines in application volumes, according to a survey report released today (Sept. 18) by the Graduate Management Admission Council. This year, only about one-third (32%) of U.S. programs report increased application volumes — down from a high of 61% in 2014 — while 64% saw declines.

Even as a majority of programs in Europe, Canada, East and Southeast Asia, and India report growing volumes in 2017 regardless of class size, fewer than half the programs in the U.S. are growing, with the exception of large programs with more than 200 students, which make up just 6% of programs in the GMAC survey but represent 55% of all U.S. applications and 32% of enrollments. Among those big programs, 73% report increases in applications. But among the smallest programs — those with 50 or fewer class seats — just 39% saw increases in applications. Those small programs represent 56% of responding schools in GMAC’s survey.

Why the continued drop-off? It’s complicated. While last year’s decline was blamed on the slow economic recovery, GMAC pinpoints the cause of this year’s sag as a steep dip in international candidates — the lifeblood of most U.S. B-schools. For many years, U.S. programs have relied on international candidates to add to their application pipeline: At the top business schools, MBA programs are comprised of between 30% and 40% international students; at some mid-tier schools, the MBA candidate population is closer to half — or even over the 50% mark.

Now those students have begun to flock elsewhere, with three-quarters (75%) of U.S. programs reporting a decline in international application volumes this year — largely, GMAC says, because of the change in political administration in the U.S.


The picture painted by GMAC’s 18th annual Application Trends Survey, conducted from early June to mid-July 2017, is not entirely bleak for U.S. business schools. Despite less-than-favorable trends, full-time, two-year MBA programs continued to receive ample applications (4.7 applications per seat), while one-year programs in the U.S. did not see the same dramatic drop reported by two-year programs, possibly because they do not rely as heavily on international candidates. Part-time lockstep MBA and Master in Data Analytics programs also are reporting healthy application volume.

Nor are all two-year MBA programs facing troubled waters. GMAC found that nearly 3 in 4 (73%) graduate business programs with 201 or more class seats report increased application volumes this year, compared to just over half (51%) of programs with between 100 and 200 seats per cohort. The growth among the larger U.S. programs is driven by a resurgence of domestic applications, GMAC says, offsetting declines in international applicants: Sixty-nine percent of large programs report growth in domestic applications, while only 38% of programs similar in size report growth in international applications. Overall, GMAC’s report found that international applicants represent 57% of U.S. application volumes, compared to 70% of Canadian volume, 89% of European volume, 20% of East and Southeast Asian volume, and less than 1% of Indian volume.

“Demand for graduate business education remains strong, especially among the largest programs, which tend also to be the most well-known programs with brand recognition,” Sangeet Chowfla, GMAC president and CEO, said in a written statement accompanying the new survey. “While non-U.S. programs are thriving, a strong economy and a disruptive political climate is likely contributing to the downward trend in application volumes among smaller U.S. programs this year.”


There seems to be little question at this point that recent political events in the U.S. have impacted application volumes from international candidates. GMAC found that programs in Europe and Canada are about twice as likely to report growth in international applicants compared with the U.S. Across all program types, just 32% of U.S. programs report growing international application volumes in 2017 versus 49% in 2016; conversely, 77% of Canadian programs report increases in international applications (up from 46% in 2016), as well as 67% of European programs (up slightly from 65% in 2016). Brexit, the 2016 referendum leading to the United Kingdom’s ongoing exit from the European Union, was expected by many to impact UK B-schools’ enrollment much like the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.; however, about two-thirds of programs in the UK have actually seen international demand grow.

GMAC’s survey findings are based on a record number of responses from 351 business schools and faculties in 40 countries representing 965 graduate management programs. Participating programs received a combined total of 466,176 applications during the 2017 application cycle. Among other key findings:

  • Women are increasing their representation in the graduate business school pipeline, representing 42% of total applications received by participating programs, up from 37% in 2013. Specifically, among MBA programs women represent 39% of applications, up from 33% in 2013. More MBA programs report growth in female applicants (44%) compared with business master’s (39%), whereas the growth rate is similar for men — 40% for MBA and 39% for business master’s.
  • Even as overall volume to part-time MBA programs has been stagnant or on the decline since the Great Recession, part-time lockstep programs — in which students proceed through a classroom-based program as a group — have seen stronger application volumes than part-time self-paced programs. In the U.S., 54% of part-time lockstep programs report increased volume this year, compared with just 34% of self-paced programs.
  • The level of experience that applicants bring to graduate business programs has remained relatively consistent, with a majority of full-time MBA applicants having between three and 10 years of experience. The majority of executive MBA applicants have 10 or more years of experience, and most online MBA applicants have six or more years of experience. Among business master’s programs, applicants tend to have less than one year of work experience; the exception is the Master in Data Analytics candidate who tends to have more experience.

See the next page for charts on application trends from GMAC’s report. 

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