Is this the best time to apply to a prestige MBA program? The numbers say yes.
And they say it emphatically. Only three schools among the top 25 in the United States saw their acceptance rates decline in the last year, while the 22 others saw increases — including some dramatic increases at some very elite schools. Poets&Quants examined the available 2018-2019 data from the leading schools and found that 12 have acceptance rates in the 20s or lower; last year that group numbered 15. The elite of the elite remain so, of course, with miserly admit numbers relative to the number of applicants, including Stanford Graduate School of Business, hardest of all to get into at just 6.7%. Stanford is followed by MIT Sloan School of Management (11.5%), Harvard Business School (12%), UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business (17.7%), and Columbia Business School (19.1%) to round out the top five.
Yet four of those five — and eight of the top 10 — saw their acceptance rates go up from 2017-2018 to 2018-2019, by a little or by a lot. Stanford ticked up from 6.3%, HBS jumped 1 percentage point from 11%, Columbia grew 2.1 points, and Berkeley had the hardest cycle of the lot, skyrocketing from a 2018 acceptance rate of 12%. That’s a leap of 47.5%, second-worst among all 25 schools. Only MIT avoided the slump, dropping a bit from last year’s 12.1%.
WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, MBA ACCEPTANCE RATES INCREASE ACROSS THE TOP 25
The other schools with acceptance rates in the 20s are the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania at 22%, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business at 22.5%, Duke University Fuqua School of Business at 22.9%, Yale School of Management at 25.2%, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management at 26%, UCLA Anderson School of Management at 26%, and NYU Stern School of Business at 26.1%. All but Booth — which dropped slightly from 22.9% a year ago — opened their doors a bit wider this fall.
Part of the problem, as P&Q has documented, is a major slump in applications to schools in every tier. What all this adds up to is that this is, indeed, a great time to get that application finished and submitted.
Besides MIT and Chicago, one other top-25 school saw a decrease in acceptance rate this fall: Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, which dropped from 39% to 37.3%. For everyone else, the acceptance rate and related data show varying degrees of trouble.
The seven schools with the highest acceptance rates all lost ground this cycle. The highest of the lot is at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, which jumped 5.5 percentage points to 60.5%, a 10% increase. But that was far from the worst slide. UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School slipped from 46% to 52.9%, a 15% increase; Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business went from 38% to 49.4%, a 30% increase; Emory University’s Goizueta Business School opened up from 37% to 44%, an 18.9% increase; Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business grew from 35% to 41.5%, an 18.6% increase; Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management went from 33% to 38.3%, a 16.1% increase; and Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business grew to 38% from 34%, an 11.8% climb.
Equally bad, and in some cases worse, numbers can be found higher in the ranking. UC-Berkeley’s acceptance rate ballooned by nearly 50%. Yale SOM grew from 20% to 25.2%, a 26% increase. Northwestern Kellogg’s rate jumped from 20.7% to 26%, a 25.6% increase. And then comes Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. The Hanover, New Hampshire school, ranked No. 9 by P&Q and No. 6 in the recently released Forbes ranking, went from a 22.7% acceptance rate in 2018 to 34.5% this year, a 52% increase, biggest of any top-25 school.
Applications were a big problem for Tuck this cycle, as they were for most schools. But they are not the only issue, says Luke Anthony Peña, the school’s executive director for admissions and financial aid. “I believe the reasons for recent shifts in application volume go far beyond the natural rhythms of the economic cycles,” Peña told Poets&Quants in August. “I think they have to do with how and when and where and why today’s graduate leaders are choosing to level up their skills and to build broader networks.”
APPS DOWN, ACCEPTANCE RATE UP AT MOST TOP-10 SCHOOLS
The view from the top 10 nicely illustrates the current landscape. The acceptance rate for the leading schools, which had stayed static at 14.5% for two straight years, began climbing in 2018 and jumped further this cycle. In the last two intakes, it has grown 3 percentage points, or 20.7%, to 17.5%. Applications are down a bit more than they decreased last year from 2017: 3,672, or 6.8%; looking at the three-year window, apps have declined more than 7,000, or 12.3%. Admits, meanwhile, have gone up since 2017 from 8,309 to 8,783, an increase of 474 or 5.7%. (In the last year, admits went up at all top-25 schools except Sloan, Fuqua, Tepper, UNC, Emory, Foster, Marshall, and Kelley.)
Enrollment at the top 10 has risen slightly, from 5,349 to 5,438, or 89 spots, a 1.7% increase; since 2015 enrollment has climbed 159 spots or 3%.
Perhaps the biggest issue, as Luke Peña pointed out to P&Q in April, is yield — the proportion of admitted MBA candidates who actually enroll. Unlike acceptance rate, it’s a number schools obviously want to see go up — and a number that for all but five of the top 25 went down in 2019. Yield at the top 10 has dropped 2.7 points in the last five years, from 64.6% to 61.9%, 4.2% decline.
YIELD NUMBERS FALL AT 4 OUT OF 5 IN THE TOP 25
In the top 25, the yield is up at MIT Sloan, Duke Fuqua, UCLA Anderson, UNC Kenan-Flagler, and Washington Foster. (See acceptance rate, yield, and related data on pages 2 and 3.) Everywhere else, it’s down — and at some schools, badly down.
One such school is UC-Berkeley Haas, where a strong recovery is underway under a new dean after last year’s scandal involving low African-American enrollment numbers. Haas’ Class of 2021 reversed the negative diversity trend, but in terms of bringing talent into the fold, a new problem has arisen. Berkeley’s yield sank from 63.4% last year to 46.3%, a 27% decrease, worst among top-25 schools. Behind Haas was Indiana Kelley, which went from 44.7% yield to 37.4%, a 16.3% drop.
And after Kelley comes Dartmouth Tuck, which dropped from 48.2% yield to 40.5%, a 16% decline — and an indication that Luke Peña saw this problem coming last spring.
“When you have this many schools down — and many are down for two years in a row — yield is going to be a nightmare because everyone has had to dig deeper in the pool,” Peña said. “I would not be surprised if schools had to go deep into their waitlists or have to shrink their classes. It’s the collective impact of so many schools being down that is unique.”
Returning to the issue this fall, Peña added: “We certainly enrolled a class that we’re very happy with. The competition for top talent is as fierce and competitive as I’ve ever seen it. It’s certainly the case where many of the top schools are competing for the same students, and then when it’s a smaller pool of students. So certainly we’re experiencing that as well.”
See the next page for the full list of top 25 schools, their acceptance rates, admit numbers, yield, and other data; see page 3 for our chart on application numbers at the top 25 schools.