MBA In Decline? Not At Top-Tier Schools


While top-tier schools are more than holding their own in application volume, there are individual schools that have experienced their own ups and downs. Many of the more dramatic changes have little to do with general trends in the MBA market but are more specific to each school. Among the top-tier outliers, for example, MIT Sloan saw applications to its MBA program jump by an impressive 43% in the past ten years (see chart above). A good part of that increase occurred because Sloan greatly simplified its application process, making it far easier to apply. The school went to a simple 300-word cover letter and a 60-second video statement. It also helps that tech and data analysis–key strengths of the school–are hot.

On the other hand, Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management experienced a 44% drop in applications to its full-time, two-year MBA program. The drop has nothing to do with the quality of Cornell’s MBA experience but rather the confluence of a number of factors that hurt app volume. Over the ten-year period, for example, Cornell went through a controversial merger of its graduate and undergraduate business schools along with its school of hotel administration. The school also abruptly lost a dean and then in 2014 Johnson’s admissions director left to assume the same role at Cornell Tech, the university’s new campus in New York City.  “As a consequence,” explains Dean Mark Nelson, “we lost some momentum in admissions until attracting our current and excellent admissions director, Judi Byers.”

Meantime, the school has doubled the size of its Ithaca one-year program and added the Johnson Cornell Tech program. “We vet applications across these programs, which helps us better meet the needs of different students, but it does have the effect of removing some applicants from our two-year program pool,” adds Nelson. “In combination, these factors have produced high-quality applications to the two-year program, and I’m happy that our class quality and selectivity are as strong as ever.”


Similarly, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business’ 17% drop over the past ten years is largely the result of the more recent fallout from the violent protests in Charlottesville by white supremacists in August of 2017. The event, resulting in the death of a young woman, made headlines all over the globe and scared off many international candidates from applying to the school (see How Darden Is Putting Charlottesville’s Protest Behind It).

All that said, competition is fierce across the entire spectrum of business education, and no school can be complacent about its position, either within the top tier or beyond.  The pressure on business school deans, no matter where they sit, is high. At a late-night dinner with Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett before departing Philadelphia to become the new dean of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School,  Ann Harrison said she was told by Garrett that “we’re on this island and the water is rising.”

While application growth has been steady in the aggregate among the top 20 schools, there are some big variations within the group. That’s why it is useful to compare recent five-year changes in application volume to long-term changes. One measure of long-term change for each school is the decline in applications from its historical peak. Plotting these short-term and long-term measures for the top 20 schools shows some wide differences within the group of top 20 schools (see chart below).

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