MBA In Decline? Not At Top-Tier Schools

Mark Twain’s famous line to a journalist inquiring about a rumor that he was on his deathbed in London can just as easily be applied these days to the many reports about the decline of interest in MBA programs. But a new analysis of data obtained from U.S. News‘ rankings dating back to the Class of 1995 makes clear that the reports of the MBA’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Ever since Trump’s election, of course, alarm over the demise of the MBA has only heightened, largely due to anti-immigration rhetoric and worries over the ability of international students to gain work visas once they get their MBA degrees. The strong economy certainly hasn’t helped MBA applications which tend to fall when job opportunities abound and then rise when the economy is in a recession.

While aggregate MBA enrollments have fluctuated substantially over the last 23 years (red line in the chart below), and the last seven years show a sizeable decline, the trends are very different when enrollments are disaggregated by ‘tiers’ of schools based on U.S. News’ ranking. The disaggregate picture shows a consistent ‘flight to quality’ for both applicants and students.

TOP-TIER U.S. BUSINESS SCHOOLS CONTINUE TO GROW AND GAIN MARKET SHARE

The upshot? Despite economic dislocations that range from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 technological disruptions from the advent of MOOCs and online MBA options, top-tier U.S. business schools have continued to grow and gain market share in both enrollments and applications.  They continue to attract the very best MBA aspirants, and the academic quality–at least as measured by GPA and GMAT averages–of their matriculating classes remains unrivaled globally.

Grouping the schools in four tiers (rank 1-10, rank 11-20, rank 21-50, and rank 51-130) reveals that the decline is confined mainly to schools outside the top 20; aggregate enrollments at the top-20 schools have steadily grown (blue line).

In fact, the U.S. full-time MBA programs ranked in the top 20 have increased their market share of MBA enrollment to 57% of the highest ranked 130 business schools for what will be the Class of 2019 this year from 41% for the Class of 1995.

TOP TEN SCHOOLS NOW ACCOUNT FOR 36% OF MBA ENROLLMENT AT LEADING 130 SCHOOLS, UP FROM 25% IN 1995

The top 10 schools now account for 36% of MBA enrollment, up from 25% in 1995, while the schools ranked 11th through 20th now hold a 21% share, up from 16% (see below chart). Schools ranked between 21 and 50th, moreover, have held their own, with a share of 21% now versus 22% in 1995.

It’s quite a different picture for U.S. schools ranked below the top 50 where the MBA market turmoil is more evident. For schools ranked 51 through 130 by U.S. News over the 23-year timeframe, market share plunged by 15 full percentage points to 22% from 37%. It would be a safe bet to guess that enrollments have become even more difficult for business schools that aren’t ranked at all.

The U.S. News database contains application volume data going back to the Class of 2003. The tier-by-tier historical trend of this data is also revealing. First, while total application volume has fluctuated up and down during the last two decades, the flight to quality towards top-tier schools is just as pronounced for applications (chart below) as it is for enrollments.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

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.