Who’s Hardest Hit In This Year’s MBA App Slump

The numbers are in, and they’re not pretty.

MBA applications this past year plunged at 18 of the Top 20 U.S. business schools. Only two schools bucked the trend and not by very much: Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, which eked out less than a one percent gain over its year earlier number, and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where applications rose 3.3%.

Just outside the Top 20, only one other prominent school could report an increase: the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, which saw just a one percent uptick. But ten highly prominent MBA programs suffered double-digit declines, including the University of Texas’ McCombs School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

There are a couple of quick conclusions once you look at the data. One is that even the very best schools, including Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB and Wharton, could not evade the downturn. The so-called M7 schools, which include those three plus Booth, Kellogg, MIT Sloan, and Columbia, saw a combined 4.7% drop. Hardest hit? Booth which saw an application falloff of 8.7%.

SCHOOLS RANKED TENTH TO 25TH SUFFERRED TWICE THE DECLINE IN MBA APPS AT THE VERY TOP MBA PROGRAMS

Another is that schools ranked from tenth to 25th suffered twice the decline in MBA applications in 2017-2018 than those in the Top Ten. All together, the Top Ten MBA programs experienced a 4.9% fall in applications; the next 15 ranked business schools saw their applications decline by 9.7%.

In several cases, the falloff has been so severe that it is shocking. At Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Management, there was a 27.7% year-over-year drop in MBA apps. At Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management, MBA applications plunged 23.9%. And at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, applications fell by 20.5%.

In all, 70% of U.S. business schools reported declines in their MBA applications, according to a survey of the schools by the Graduate Management Admission Council. According to GMAC, U.S. business schools experienced a nearly 7% decline in app volume from last year, including a 1.8% decline in domestic applications and a 10.5% drop in international volume across all program types.

AT RICE AND UVA DARDEN, THE DOWNTURNS WERE MADE WORSE BY UNUSUAL EVENTS

By now, the reasons for the decline are well known. International MBA candidates, scared off by anti-immigration talk in the U.S. and concern over their ability to get a work visa, are now applying to European and Asian MBA programs or just postponing their graduate education ambitions. The strong economy is keeping domestic applicants in their current jobs because there already are plenty of opportunities at work. And the sticker shock applicants may experience when they calculate the full costs of an MBA are putting off many others who might be willing to apply and enroll in a two-year program.

“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).”

In some cases, however, the falloffs were exacerbated by other issues. At Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Management, the downturn was made worse 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 DARDEN, ROUND ONE APPS LAST YEAR PLUNGED BY 27% AFTER THE CHARLOTTESVILLE PROTEST

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.”

At UVA Darden, the downturn was fueled in part by the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va., last August. As if international candidates needed another reason not to apply to a U.S. business school, the protest which made headlines all over the world didn’t help.

The highly publicized protest scared off many applicants, particularly from abroad, causing round one applications to fall by 27%. “We took a big hit in round one due to the events that transpired in Charlottesville last August,” notes Dawna Clarke, head of MBA admissions and financial aid at Darden. “We ended up being down 16.7%, and I was thrilled with the progress we made during the course of the admissions cycle.”

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.