U.S. Politics Decimating International Apps

A new survey shows that a large majority of U.S. business school admissions officers are concerned that politics will continue to drive down numbers of international student applicants. For many schools, this would be financially devastating

Concerns are rising about a decline in international enrollment at U.S. business schools. In a new poll released today (March 28), Kaplan Test Prep found that a wide majority of admissions officers are concerned that the current domestic political climate will have a negative impact on international student enrollment in the years to come — a development that portends devastating consequences for schools with high proportions of foreign students.

In Kaplan’s phone poll of 138 gatekeepers at the leading U.S. B-schools conducted between August and October 2017, the long-time provider of educational and career services found that 68% were either very concerned or somewhat concerned that the anti-immigration rhetoric of the administration of President Donald Trump will impact international student enrollment in the years to come. Based on the available data of the last two years, the concerns may be warranted. According to a recent report from the Graduate Management Admission Council, only 32% of U.S. programs saw growing international application volumes in 2017, versus 49% in 2016.

Who is benefiting? Canada, for one. Last year the U.S.’s northern neighbor reported a 77% gain in international applications, up from just 46% in 2016. Meanwhile, in Europe, 67% of programs grew their international application volume, a small increase from 2016.


Noah Teitelbaum of Kaplan Test Prep

Not all schools in the Kaplan survey were alarmed by the potential for political developments to impact enrollment and the bottom line. About 32% of respondents — 44 schools — said they were somewhat or very unconcerned. That’s not surprising when you consider that large schools — those with 200 or more students — have not seen the drop in applications by international students that smaller schools have seen. But not all schools have been so lucky. What schools have been, and can expect to continue to be, most impacted by a severe downturn in international enrollment? According to a Poets&Quants analysis from last summer, among top-50 schools’ MBA programs, the highest percentage of full-time foreign students in the Class of 2018 could be found at the University of California-Irvine Merage School of Business, where more than half — 53.2% — hailed from outside the U.S. Only one other top-50 school, the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, cracked the 50% mark for international students (50.5%). 

For UC-Irvine, that’s 92 students in total; in Rochester Simon’s case, we’re talking about just over 100 students. So in terms of actual hard numbers, there’s a different story to tell. According to figures from the fall of 2016, the top school for international students by volume was the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where an astounding 514 international students (30.1% of total full-time MBA candidates) were enrolled in 2016. (Looking ahead to its most recent class profile, Wharton has actually increased its percentage of foreign students to 33% of the total class, hailing from 65 countries.) On the other end of the scale, the lowest percentages in 2016 were found at a pair of public schools: the Hough Graduate School of Business at the University of Florida (14%) and the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (16.1%).

Even as international applications have risen at the leading schools, it’s easy to see why all B-schools might be concerned about a drop — especially a precipitous one — in enrollment of foreign students. In 2016, of the top 50 schools, 26 had 100 or more foreign-born MBA candidates, and 36 had international student MBA populations that comprised at least 30% of the whole.

“Many business schools pride themselves on their robust international student presence and a culture that’s welcoming to aspiring MBAs from outside the U.S. In fact, it’s often a recruitment platform for attracting future international students, in addition to American applicants who also appreciate a globally diverse learning environment. With many U.S. business schools relying on international students to make up upwards of 30 percent of their total student population, it’s likely that they are adjusting their recruitment strategies accordingly,” says Noah Teitelbaum, executive director of pre-business programs for Kaplan Test Prep.


As part of the Kaplan survey, one business school admissions officer shared concerns about losing Mexican applicants to schools in Canada; another said that some prospective international students withdrew their candidacies before they completed the applicant evaluation process. Some gatekeepers, seeking to assuage potential applicants’ concerns about applying to schools in the U.S., offered messages of inclusion and encouragement: “We have gone out of our way — did a video and sent letters to our current students as well as our connections outside the country — to tell people that we embrace diversity,” one tells Kaplan. “We simply share with them that this is uncharted territory for all of us. The economy is very strong right now,” another says. “Even if all they get is an incredible education and internship, that’s an incredible thing to market in their home country.”

Another gatekeeper urges perspective: “Because there are challenges, we need students like you. This is a short-term thing.” One says the anti-immigrant rhetoric is overblown: “We reassure students that there are not real issues as opposed to the hype in media that’s out there.” And yet another says his school engages the help of alumni to serve as ambassadors around the world. “We try to use alumni who are non-U.S. to help promote program. Florida is very welcoming and diverse, with a large international population, from South America, and Central America for example. We also just launched scholarships for international students to demonstrate financially that they are welcome.”

One school admissions officer, meanwhile, isn’t convinced the downturn in international applications will last, citing what happened after September 11, which prompted a decline in applications, followed by a rebound. Nor is there too much about the other major political event of 2016 to be alarmed by.

“What American business school leaders can take heart in is that a volatile political climate doesn’t necessarily lead to a long-term cratering of students from abroad, as British business schools continue to see robust growth in international applicants, despite initial Brexit worries,” Teitelbaum says. “The next few admissions cycles will tell us if what we are seeing in the United States right now is a blip on the radar screen or part of a more consequential multiyear trend.”


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