For Applicants To Top MBA Programs, Trump No Deterrent

A new survey shows the “Trump effect” that many attribute to a plummeting application volume at mid-level and smaller schools has little bearing on either the mindset or the plans of most international MBA candidates applying to top U.S. MBA programs.

The annual survey by Stacy Blackman Consulting, a MBA admissions advisory company, gauges candidate priorities and opinion on a range of issues. Released today (October 1), the 2018 survey’s findings show that the current political and economic climate in the United States has a limited influence on MBA candidates’ intentions, with 70% of respondents saying they are unswayed, and 8% even saying they are more likely to apply to U.S. MBA programs given the current political climate.

Even among the 19% who reported they were less likely to apply because of the current U.S. political climate, 82% of that group are still applying or planning to apply to U.S. programs.

“I often wonder if international MBA candidates in particular are going to mention Trump across our hundreds of inquiries,” says Sara Tsai, principal at Stacy Blackman Consulting, “but no one does.”


Stacy Blackman Consulting

Of 501 total respondents to the SBC survey, 46% were U.S. citizens applying for MBA programs and 54% were internationals. Additionally, 37% of the respondents were female, 61% male, and 2% unspecified.

The survey differed in key ways from the recently released Application Trends Survey, an annual report by the Graduate Management Admission Council that polls more than 1,000 business programs of varied types, including non-ranked and non-MBA programs, about past-season application volumes. The SBC poll, on the other hand, asks questions directly of current-season applicants and focuses exclusively on MBA programs. Its findings on trends, such as the extent to which U.S. politics influence MBA plans, are based on questions and responses. And its main finding in 2018 is that the top U.S. schools remain, in the eyes of most candidates, the gold standard.

“Top-tier U.S. MBA programs offer the skills, experience, and networks to excel professionally within the U.S. and globally,” says Meghan Ellis, former admissions officer of Wharton Lauder. “The U.S. programs train students to navigate global management issues or even take their career overseas. … Regardless of political climate, graduates of top U.S. programs have the unique ability to successfully move back and forth between the U.S. and abroad, whereas graduates of even top international programs can find it difficult to recruit into post-MBA positions here in the U.S.”


Running down the list of what applicants love most about leading U.S. MBA programs, the SBC survey finds that it’s reputation, networks, career path potential, rankings, and the strong U.S. economy, in that order. Internationals are applying to a broader range of MBA programs, including EU and Asia “safety schools,” largely because of the competitive nature of top U.S. business programs, particularly the M7 business schools — and not because of anti-immigrant political rhetoric or H-1B visa concerns.

Indian nationals are the largest international MBA applicant group, representing 26% of the demand for U.S. MBA programs and 64% of the demand for EU MBA programs. The survey finds that the recent increase in EU MBA program applications is likely driven by Indian nationals.

Few respondents are exclusively aiming for international MBA programs, however, because of the greater prestige attributed to the U.S. MBA experience. Only 2% of U.S. applicants and 11% of internationals are applying to international programs exclusively, the survey finds. But there is greater diligence and selectivity of MBA programs among MBA candidates this year, and use of resources such as MBA admissions consultants correlates with the more reputable MBA programs.


Survey respondents predict that there will be a continued decrease in international student representation at U.S. MBA programs as a whole — a phenomenon that is already well underway — and are comfortable with modest decreases without adversely changing the student experience. Others predict better career recruiting options because of the currently strong economy, especially for U.S. students. But top schools are expected to mostly dodge that bullet. “I would not anticipate seeing top-tier B-schools shrink the portion of their class that has an international background,” says Beth Tidmarsh, a former Northwestern Kellogg MBA admissions officer who now works on the Stacy Blackman Consulting team. “Top schools are committed to creating a class that brings in diverse perspectives from around the world to enhance student learning and the overall classroom experience. Managers and leaders of the future will tackle problems in a highly interconnected world, do business on a global scale, and the issues are only getting more complex.”

Overwhelmingly, respondents admire the resilience of the top programs and desire entry to them — often pointing to rankings as indicators of schools’ desirability.

“Throughout my 20-year career in MBA admissions, the one constant is the incredible allure of top programs, the high caliber of students that pursue those programs, and the core attributes that those programs seek,” Stacy Blackman says.

Reputation of MBA programs is the most influential motivator across the U.S. and international MBA applicants who participated in the SBC study — and, accordingly, demand for top-10 business schools in the U.S. dominated survey results. Getting into a top U.S. MBA program remains the main concern, reported by 85% of respondents, far surpassing concerns around MBA tuition costs and the current U.S. political or immigration climate.

“Reputation matters,” says Kim Ge, a former Chicago Booth MBA admissions officer who now works at Stacy Blackman Consulting. “Rankings are a significant driver of MBA program reputation. I personally saw the uptick in applications as Chicago Booth began to take the lead and tie for first place in the U.S. News & World Report ranking. Throughout my time as an admissions officer, there were countless times candidates called out the school’s ranking and its importance to them.”

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