An Interview With Cornell Johnson’s MBA Gatekeeper

The two-year MBA Class of 2020 at Cornell Johnson represents 40 countries; it is 33% women and 15% underrepresented minorities. Applications were down slightly at Cornell this fall. Cornell photo

When the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University welcomed its new batch of two-year MBA candidates to campus in early August for pre-term activities, panels, and meet-and-greet and leadership sessions, it was the first time the 280 students had gathered together on what would soon become a shared journey. It was a journey that became intense almost immediately as the students began working with their core teams, learned about the resources available to them at their new home, and spent time exploring their new home in Ithaca, New York.

Though it comprises only 15% underrepresented minorities, it is nevertheless one of the most diverse MBA classes to start at Cornell Johnson, says Judi Byers, executive director of admissions and financial aid. The Class of 2020 represents 40 countries and its composition includes 33% women and an average GMAT score of 699. Like many schools, Johnson saw a dip in applications, but it was small — the school received 1,600 apps this year, compared to 1,653 in 2017. The decline was largely attributable to a drop in apps from international students — more on that below.

But as Byers tells Poets&Quants, as applications have declined, Cornell Johnson loosened the bottleneck a bit, increasing its selectivity rate from 30% to 33%, “reflective of our decision to emphasize class composition as a school priority, value, and enrollment objective.” Meanwhile, she adds, the “overall professional experience and academic profile of candidates who enrolled this year” remained strong, with an average GPA that was up slightly and average GMAT that remained nearly the same. “And our community is more diverse now too,” Byers says, “with more women and students from underrepresented backgrounds, including LGBTQ, which has notably shifted the experience to be richer and more inclusive than it was previously.”

Two Year MBA Class Profiles 2020 (entering ’18) 2019 (entering ’17)
Enrolled 280 277
Female % 33% 27%
Minority % 32% 31%
URM % 15% 12%
Military % 7% 11%
Domestic % 73% 66%
International % 27% 34%
Countries Represented 40 38
GMAT average 699 700
GPA average 3.4 3.36
Age (average) 28 28
Full Time Work Experience (average) 5 5


Cornell’s Judi Byers. Courtesy photo

The 699 average GMAT score represents a one-point drop from 2017, but Cornell’s five-year picture in that metric is still on an upswing of seven points. Moreover, the 3.40 average undergraduate GPA is the highest at Cornell Johnson since at least 2013, and the percentage of women represents a 6-point jump over the Class of 2019. Johnson had been on a five-year slide, dropping from 30% in 2013 to 27% last year, among the worst performers of a top-20 school.

But there’s still the worrisome matter of a decline in overseas applications, a factor for many if not most elite B-schools. For Cornell, where nearly one-fifth of students, faculty, and staff come from countries outside of the United States, the drop in apps from abroad was reflected in the 27% of internationals in the Class of 2020, a huge 7-point decline from the previous year. Part of the problem stems from visa complications, Byers says, adding that the picture isn’t as alarming as it looks.

“The Y-O-Y change in our international student enrollment this year looks more pronounced than it is,” says Byers, who became head of Cornell Johnson’s admissions in January 2015 after a decade at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C. “While we saw a slight decline in the overall number of international submissions made during the 2017-18 season, we offered admission to several more international candidates and ultimately had a few students who were originally planning to join our Class of 2020 and were granted deferrals due to visa complications or delays.” Byers adds that in such cases, candidates selected to join the Cornell two-year MBA program “are given the full support they need to successfully enroll.”


Even as the political atmosphere causes international MBA candidates to reassess their plans to study in the U.S., some have continued to inquire about post-graduation employment opportunities as well as the evolving changes with regard to U.S. visa sponsorship and immigration policy, Byers says. “As an MBA community, and within our MBA Programs Leadership team, we have frequent discussions regarding how best to support our international students throughout the entirety of the MBA experience and have taken proactive steps since early spring 2017,” she says.

Those steps, Byers says, have included providing additional scholarship support to international candidates and helping to reduce the financial difficulties related to cost of attendance; maintaining an active and accurate understanding of the changes in policy that may impact our candidates and newest community members; and deepening career support and activities to help international students find opportunities in the U.S. and abroad. But an even bigger step — perhaps the biggest — was joining 33 other leading institutions of higher education in filing an amicus brief arguing that the Trump administration’s 2017 travel ban harms American higher education.

“American colleges and universities,” reads the brief, “have long recognized the importance of attracting international students, faculty, staff, and scholars. International scholars and faculty share important insights about conditions, traditions, and cultural values and practices in their nations. Their work leads to critical advancements across all disciplines, from science and technology to arts and letters, often through cross-border collaborations that enhance their teaching and research. International students study here and return home as leaders in business, medicine, politics, and other fields. The benefits of international diversity in American higher education thus inure not only to colleges and universities themselves, but to the country and indeed the world as a whole.”

(See next pages for P&Q‘s interview, edited for length and clarity, with Judi Byers.)

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