‘DARDEN HAS BOOSTED PHILANTROPIC SUPPORT FOR SCHOLARSHIPS BY MORE THAN 700%
The arm’s race in scholarship money has been in full force for at least the past ten years. Every dean in fundraising mode has made scholarships a key priority of their campaigns, in part to offset the high sticker prices on their MBA programs. Scott Beardsley, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, has made it a priority to increase funds for scholarships since arriving at the school in August of 2015. Since then, he has boosted philanthropic support for scholarships by more than 700%.
“In some ways, a business school will only be as good as the quality of the students it can attract,” says Beardsley who aims to make Darden’s MBA the most affordable of the top business schools. “The No. 1 reasons top applicants go to another school is because of finances and rankings. As students increasingly carry significant undergraduate debt and market tuition rates continue to rise, scholarships are important to spark a virtuous cycle in which top student talent attracts top faculty, top recruiters, top resources, and eventually rankings that may follow depending on what they measure.”
Harvard Business School alone discounted the sticker price of its tuition by a record $37 million in fellowship aid in fiscal 2018. That is $6 million more than the $31 million HBS spent only four years ago in 2014. Approximately half of the school’s 1,870 MBA students currently receive fellowships, which cover an average of more than 50% of a student’s annual tuition of $73,440. Over the past five fiscal years, Harvard Business School’s average two-year MBA fellowship award has grown from $59,358 for the Class of 2014 to $80,000 for the Class of 2019. While HBS does not offer full rides, it’s possible for students to get complementary fellowships or outside scholarships worth as much as $30,000 on top of their Harvard awards. Yet, HBS and Stanford maintain that their grants are based solely on financial need–not merit.
‘SCHOOLS ARE USING SCHOLARSHIPS TO COMPETE IN A BUYER’S MARKET’
All the other schools are using their millions to lure the most qualified and desirable students to campus. The boom in scholarship aid is an indication of how fiercely competitive the B-school landscape has become. But it is also a function of the competitive pressure that comes from MBA rankings. Boosting an incoming class’ average GMAT scores, by effectively purchasing students with high GMATs, can have an immediate impact in the most consulted ranking from U.S. News & World Report. The best students, moreover, are more likely to graduate with the most lucrative job offers, another metric common to all the MBA rankings. Longer-term, highly successful graduates are more likely to become generous alumni benefactors.
“They are using scholarships to compete in a buyer’s market caused by the decline in application volume,” says Abraham of Accepted.com. “They are also using scholarships to get the applicants they really want — those whom they believe employers will want to hire, who will add to the diversity of the class, and who will make the school look good by contributing to a high entering class GMAT/GRE and GPA average. Essentially, MBA programs use scholarships to maintain yield and compete against other b-schools also using scholarships to attract applicants. Fierce competition among business schools has caused the scholarship dollar amounts to climb.”
At mbaMission, one of the largest MBA admissions consulting firms, one-third of the firm’s clients handed scholarships got grants worth $100,000 or more, according to founder and CEO Jeremy Shinewald. “In recent years, international applicants have been getting these large scholarships at top schools, a welcome change from a decade ago when very little was available,” says Shinewald who attributes the shift to the decline in international applications.
STILL HARD TO PRY AWAY A HARVARD OR STANFORD MBA ADMIT, NO MATTER HOW LARGE THE GRANT
“While we could probably pat ourselves on the back and declare ourselves geniuses,” he adds, “the rise in scholarship dollars is not just the result of helping applicants put together their strongest applications. There is a macro story at play. In the last decade, the equity markets have roared and endowments have grown significantly, enabling programs to increase their scholarship funds. Compounding the effect, alumni have done remarkably well during this bull run – so we are seeing a wave of enormous gifts – Frank Sands recent $60 million donation to Darden as just one example – further filling coffers. Unfortunately, the world of financial aid remains opaque, but, as the cost of an MBA has risen, we have seen top-programs respond aggressively.”
Yet, consultants say, the awards have little persuasive power when it comes to convincing a candidate to turn down Harvard or Stanford. “MBA applicants are now–more than ever- relentlessly focused on the brand of the MBA program,” says Blackman. She says her clients have received more than $4.8 million in total scholarship dollars in each of the past three years (see her analysis of scholarship awards below). “The difference in reputation or brand preference between the two scholarship programs is a key factor. Almost 100% of applicants will accept HBS without a scholarship and decline any scholarship, even a full ride, at other MBA programs.”
It’s not only the woman who passed on six other generous scholarship awards in favor of Harvard. Blackman says that half a dozen of her round one clients who received scholarships to Wharton and admits to HBS all walked from Wharton’s scholarship dollars to go to Boston. She estimates that only one in 50 Harvard admits would be swayed by a full ride to a lower-ranked program. “About 75% would accept a program like Wharton with no or a small scholarship and decline a larger scholarship even a full ride from lower-ranked programs such as NYU, Ross, or Anderson.”
HBS AND STANFORD ADMITS BELIEVE THEY WILL MAKE BACK THE DIFFERENCE OVER THEIR LIFETIME EARNINGS
Chris Aitken, the co-founder of MBA Prep School, agrees. “Even very generous scholarships don’t seem to stop applicants accepting their Stanford or Harvard offers,” he says. “From talking with applicants, it seems like they believe they’ll more than ‘make back the difference’ over their lifetime earnings. If the applicant has not been accepted to S/H, then the scholarships carry significantly more weight among the ‘rest’ of the elite schools. We spend time trying to get our clients to make decisions independently of their scholarship awards but this isn’t easy.”
Meredith Shields of Vantage Point recently coached a client as a reapplicant to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Booth. “She got substantial scholarship offers from Wharton ($60k) and Booth ($100k) but ultimately was not swayed from accepting HBS’s offer even though they gave no scholarship offers,” she says. “HBS’s reputation was the leading factor in her decision – she wanted to go to HBS even if it meant that she came out of school with more debt.”
Blackman notes that another client, an Asian female with a liberal arts background who works at a lesser-known tech company, got admits from Wharton, Columbia, and NYU Stern. The latter offer from Stern came with a $180,000 merit-based scholarship, with full tuition and fees as well as an annual stipend. “She is choosing Wharton and paying in full,” says Blackman. “The Wharton brand for her specific career path and ambitions was that valuable.”