Selectivity. More often than not it’s the first thing a potential business school applicant looks at when choosing where to apply. What percentage of applicants are admitted to a school? In one number, one data point, comes an answer to the essential question: What are my chances of getting in?
Of course it’s not that simple — and no one really thinks it is. But individuals aren’t the only ones who place a high degree of importance on acceptance rates. Schools do, too. Low selectivity — like that of elite schools, which dwell permanently in the low teens or, in the case of Stanford Graduate School of Business, in the single digits — conveys prestige. But it’s a fine line. Too high a number suggests a lower bar for entry and a less elite cohort. Too low a percentage, however, might scare off applicants.
A Poets&Quants analysis of acceptance rates at the top 50 U.S. schools reveals that en masse, the numbers are going up — meaning more applicants are getting in. But behind that fact is another, salient one: Applications at about 80% of schools are down, by a little or by a lot, meaning it looks likely that admissions offices are compensating by opening the gates a little wider. Of 49 schools that made their acceptance rate and related data available, 38 saw their application volume drop between 2017 and 2018, by an average of nearly 200 applications; included in the roster of schools with declines are nine of the top 10 schools.
‘A PROXY FOR THE SELECTIVITY, PRESTIGE & DEMAND FOR AN MBA PROGRAM’
Meanwhile, only 10 schools saw app volume go up, by an average of just 68 apps. (One school, Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, saw its apps remain exactly the same, at 617; another, SMU’s Cox School of Business, neither posts acceptance data nor responded to repeated requests for the information.) Acceptance rates seemed to respond, going up at 34 schools, including eight of the top 10 schools, while dropping at only 11 others. Among the schools that saw increases were Stanford, which again has the lowest acceptance rate at 6.3%.
So apps are going down and acceptance rates are going up. What does that mean for the would-be applicant?
“Serious MBA applicants should consider ‘acceptance rate’ when crafting their target list of schools,” says Alex Min, CEO of The MBA Exchange, an admissions consultancy founded in 1996. “This is a proxy for the selectivity, prestige, and market demand of a given MBA program. However, acceptance rate shouldn’t be viewed in limbo. For an applicant, it’s meaningful only if you also consider your profile versus that of the average admit at a target school. In other words, a relatively low 6.3% acceptance rate at Stanford should not discourage an applicant whose GPA, GMAT, and resume are above the class average.” But it works both ways, he adds. “Likewise, a relatively high 30% acceptance rate at Cornell Johnson should not encourage an applicant whose GPA, GMAT, and resume are clearly weaker than that school’s class average.”
ONLY 4 SCHOOLS IN TOP 50 SEE DOUBLE-DIGIT RISE IN APPLICATIONS
The overall drop in applications hasn’t caught schools or onlookers by surprise. P&Q has explored the phenomenon as it developed over the last two years, most recently reporting last fall about the schools most affected by the slump. But lining up all the top 50 schools’ data brings the reality into sharp relief. In the top 25, 21 schools saw app declines, at an average of 281. In the top 10, only Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business saw an increase — of just 11 applications.
In fact, only four schools in the top 50 saw double-digit rises in application volume between 2017 and 2018, led by Ohio State Fisher’s 32.4% increase from 444 to 588. Of the four, it is notable that three are public schools. Perhaps the most interesting case is at Arizona State, where a seesaw continues: Two years ago, the school saw a 161.6% jump in apps following its decision to offer all admits a full two-year scholarship; the next year apps snapped back with a 45.3% drop. This year, however, the Carey School is back up by more than 20%, the second-biggest rise of any top-50 school.
Those application declines had an effect on acceptance rates themselves. Of the 34 schools with increases in their acceptance rates, 25 saw them go up by 2 percentage points or more; seven saw double-digit increases, including an 18-point jump at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, to 61% from 43%.
SOME SCHOOLS ABSORB APP DECLINE, OTHERS STRUGGLE
While most schools saw their apps go down, some saw them go down more than others. Midwestern and southern schools seemed particularly affected, but no region has escaped the downturn in MBA applications. Hardest hit: Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management, where apps dropped by more than 30%, from 332 in 2017 to 231 last fall. Going back to 2016, when it had 453 applications, Krannert’s application volume has fallen by 49%.
Thirty-eight schools saw their application volumes drop, at an average of 196 apps per school; the biggest declines in terms of actual numbers came at schools that can absorb the loss: 447 at Wharton, 465 at Harvard, 385 at Chicago Booth, 490 at Yale SOM; but the biggest loss was at a smaller school: 508 applications at Texas-Austin’s McCombs School of Business, which went from 2,586 apps in 2017 to 2,078 last fall. Among the top-25 schools that took big hits were Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, which saw a 226 app (27.8%) decline, and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, which fell 393 apps, or 18.3%. Both schools had sizable corresponding jumps in acceptance rate as well.
One of the hardest-hit elite schools was Virginia’s Darden School of Business, which took a nearly 18% wallop to application volume in the wake of the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, dropping 490 applications from that year to 2018. “I think the decline is understandable given the circumstances,” says Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the Darden School.
Applications signal market demand, Min tells P&Q, and the acceptance rate is a proxy for that demand. It is also a proxy for student quality. It and other metrics — average GMAT score, undergraduate GPA average and others — continue to be major factors in MBA programs’ reputation and ranking. So when acceptance rates go up, that tells us something about schools’ value proposition and the viability of the market, Min says. “Given the heavy emphasis that applicants place on image and rankings, schools should and do care deeply about their acceptance rates,” he says.
How did all this affect actual enrollment? See tables on pages 3-5 for data on all 50 schools. And what about European schools and how they compare to the top U.S. schools? Click here to find out.