Another Top-50 MBA Program Joins STEM Tsunami

Dean H. Rao Unnava of UC-Davis’ Graduate School of Management. File photo

In 2019, the acceptance rate at the University of California-Davis Graduate School of Management jumped to 43.1% from 37%, a level where it had remained steady for two previous years. At the same time, the school was among 37 in the top 50 in the United States to see its yield decline. In fact, UC-Davis’ yield dropped the most of any school, from 44.7% in 2018 to 37.4% last fall, a decline of 16.3%.

A big part of the problem is the slump in applications that has afflicted business schools across the U.S. for the last three years. UC-Davis weathered the storm reasonably well until last fall’s intake, for which it received 262 total applications for its full-time MBA — down from 303 the previous cycle, a loss of 41 apps, or 13.5%. And while the school admitted about the same number of applicants — 113 to 2018’s 112 — only 35 enrolled, 11 fewer than the previous year.

Are things getting better this application cycle? So far, says Dean H. Rao Unnava, the answer is no, though the school has two more deadlines remaining this spring.

“In general, it’s low — lower than last year,” Unnava tells Poets&Quants, adding that UC-Davis is certainly not alone. “I was talking to a few other school officials recently and they had the same story to tell. And there were some programs which surprised me.”


The Great App Slump has been powered by persistent losses among international applicants. Those losses have been credited to, among other factors, the high cost of residential MBA degrees, the time required to complete them (during which most are unable to work and earn), the rise of alternatives that are both cheaper and faster, and strict U.S. visa rules that make finding long-term work after graduation difficult. Schools have responded to that last factor by designating all or part of their MBAs as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, thus making graduates eligible for as much as three years’ employment without a visa — an attractive bit of bait for foreign applicants on the fence. It started in 2016 with Wisconsin School of Business, then really took off when Rochester University’s Simon Business SchoolP&Q‘s Program of the Year in 2018 — declared its whole MBA to be STEM. Now even elite schools, including Columbia Business School, UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and Stanford Graduate School of Business — among others — are declaring themselves STEM or exploring the benefits of doing so.

Last week, UC-Davis announced it had joined the STEM movement.

“I was looking at a lot of changes taking place outside and other schools announcing that they have been STEM designated,” Unnava says, “and we did some research on that and discovered that there are two types of schools that are getting the STEM designation. One type is, we have the curriculum itself is heavily management science oriented. Like the Rochester and Carnegie Mellon.

“And the other type is where the curriculum is more behavioral. And so they developed tracks in order to get STEM-designated. And the research also showed that the perception of the value of an MBA goes up amongst the students when it is STEM-designated, because it is now viewed as a technical degree rather than a liberal arts degree. And Duke University has the experience where they have seen significant number of domestic students taking the STEM-designated track they had developed.

“So we looked through our curriculum, compared it to the curricula from other schools, and noticed that we are more like Rochester. And so we thought that we would go that route, and have the entire MBA STEM-designated, because that’s what we do here.”


The Financial Times lists the percentage of international students in the UC-Davis MBA at 45%, up from 44% in 2018. That puts the school squarely in the upper tier of U.S. MBA programs in terms of international population. But as Unnava points out, those numbers can be misleading.

“It’s interesting because the percentages in our case look exaggerated because of the size of the program,” says Unnava, whose program is ranked 47th in the U.S. this year by P&Q, up from 49th in 2018. “So when you look at our program, it’s about 40, 45 people — so when you’re talking about 45%, that’s not that many people. I think 21 students.

“So what happened, last year especially, was that we were all prepared for it to decline in the applications and also a decline potentially in how many students would accept our offer. Because the decline in applications itself, everybody is talking about it because there are options now: People can go to Canada, to Australia, to Europe and so on, because there are good schools there. So that’s one thing. And the second is, they are looking at the immigration situation here, thinking from that, ‘I wouldn’t want to go there.’

“So we made exactly the same number of offers that we normally would do, and we just had a significantly higher number of people accept them, which was unexpected. That was what led to where we are today, and my guess is we’ll revert to 35% to 40% internationals in the MBA this year.”

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