B-Schools Fear Dramatic Fall In Internationals Due To Virus

At first, GMAT and GRE centers in China were shut down and business schools began canceling their immersion trips to China. Now, as the coronavirus continues to spread across the glove, test centers are closing down in eight countries, MBA admission offices are moving in-person interviews to Skype and Zoom, and concern is growing that the international student pipeline might shut down completely.

The biggest issue right now is one of uncertainty. “We’re in uncharted territory with the coronavirus as media coverage, government reactions, and market volatility demonstrate,” says Matt Symonds, co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “What remains to be seen is the evolving U.S. response to the crisis, and in an election year any actions are likely to be highly politicized. We may well see travel restrictions, but it is hard to imagine that business schools will turn away top international talent for a class start 18 months from now.”

Still, for this year’s admissions cycle, business schools may have to draw on their waitlists more aggressively, grant more deferrals to international students who decide not to enroll in the fall, and prep for what could be a vastly expanded applicant pool next year as many international candidates reapply or a recession fuels a new MBA applicant boom. Some schools, with robust online MBA alternatives, are beginning to discuss starting international students online and bringing them to campus later when the crisis ends. 


Some schools are making conditional offers to Chinese applicants who are coping with a two-month closure of GMAT test centers. “If other countries start to close down testing centers, the MBA could become ‘test-optional’ at least for the balance of this cycle,” thinks Linda Abraham, founder of accepted.com, an admissions consulting firm. “If the epidemic continues, closed testing centers will impact the next cycle, too.”

While all GMAT testing in mainland China suspended until at least March 31, more countries are being added to the list of center closures. In Daegu, South Korea, testing has been shut down through March 31, while in both Trento and Milan, Italy, no one will be able to take a GMAT test through March 8th, if then.

Testing also has been suspended in Bahrain, Mongolia, Kuwait, Thailand, and Hong Kong. In Singapore, GMAT’s delivery partner, Pearson VUE, and building operators have instituted mandatory temperature checks and will begin reviewing the travel history of test-takers entering testing center facilities in Singapore. If candidates are found unwell, are exhibiting symptoms, or report having traveled to China within 14 days prior to their appointment, they will be asked to reschedule their appointment and will be offered a full refund.


Schools are watching the situation closely. “We are most definitely assuming that the Coronavirus will impact some students’ ability to attend Darden in the fall,” says Dawna Clarke,  admissions director for the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business which has formed a task force on the issue. “Our current plan is to be generous with deferral requests, to be flexible with those intending to apply in R3 as some GMAT test centers are currently closed, to be more aggressive with offers of admissions and to continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Administrators at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business are meeting later this week to discuss the implications of the virus on its full-time MBA program which is a third international with a majority of those students from India. “Our preliminary discussions have centered on starting the students online,” says Ash Soni, executive associate dean for academic programs. “However, we will only be able to do that over a short run so a lot still has to be sorted out.”

A more immediate concern is getting students who are on exchange programs all over the world to return to campus as soon as possible. The school is consulting with students who are scheduled to go out on short intensive trips that are seven to ten days long. Trips to Germany and Finland are set to leave later this week. “We are working with the students to determine their preferences,” adds Soni.


More concerning, perhaps, are the school’s Globase classes, which pair MBAs with social impact projects, over the upcoming spring break. “The Globase trips are our biggest challenge,” says Soni. “They impact about 100 students. We had five MBA trips planned to China, Thailand, Indonesia, Ghana, and Brazil. We moved the China trip to Guatemala about four weeks ago. We canceled Thailand and Indonesia about three weeks ago and gave the students the option to go to other locations. Ghana, Brazil and Guatemala are still on but it is possible we may have to cancel these trips as well. We are working with the students to determine the best path forward.”

Olin Business School was among the first to move its global immersion for first-year MBAs out of China and into Paris and Lima, Peru, this summer. But most schools, including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, have canceled any school-related trips or projects to China in the near term. Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business has canceled all of the international student consulting projects that had been scheduled for the next few weeks.

The testing center cutbacks along with the general fears over international travel, moreover, are causing many to worry that the international applicant pipeline to MBA programs will be greatly diminished after several years of declining applications to full-time MBA offerings in the U.S. 


Some admission officials believe that many international applicants may forfeit their deposits and their spots in programs if the coronavirus epidemic keeps growing. One outcome of this scenario is that business schools are becoming more proactive in looking into domestic applicants more favorably in order to prevent greater erosion in melt, the percentage of applicants who decide not to attend after being admitted and deposited. 

“I’m sure the uncertainty will cause greater concern about international melt over the summer unless the number of cases starts to decline very soon,” says Abraham of accepted.com. “Schools may defensively admit more domestic applicants and perhaps waitlist more international applicants.”

Much of the impact, however, is something of a guessing game at this point. “While it’s too soon to tell, we may be entering a phase where MBA applicants priority staying within their home countries and are less willing to travel to programs on the other side of the world,” says Stacy Blackman, founder of a leading MBA admissions firm with her name. She predicts that schools will look for ways to minimize yield fallout.


“Expect increasing scrutiny in admissions, where MBA programs more carefully bet applicants to see whether the program is their ‘one and only’ first choice and would accept if given the admit,” says Blackman. “Whether this means MBA programs will favor applicants from their own country remains to be seen, but the coronavirus issue won’t ever overshadow the need for MBA programs to have students from diverse regions of the world.”

Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, another leading MBA admissions consulting firm, agrees. “It is hard to predict the future, but there is a world where some internationals can’t or don’t want to leave their home countries to study in the U.S. and this could have a ripple effect,” he says. “I am sure that admission officers are looking at the international compositions of their classes very carefully.”

Symonds of Fortuna seems more optimistic. “From what we are seeing the current MBA applicants for September 2020 are unshaken in their resolve, and adapting to changing conditions for R2 video interviews or the need to travel to other regions,” he says. “Chinese applicants are confident that the number of cases has now peeked, and as you know business schools are accommodating the two-month closure of GMAT test centers with conditional offers.

“A number of medical authorities are indicating that it takes two to three months after the first sustained human to human transmission for the outbreak to peek,” adds Symonds. “After that, it would take another two to three months for it to taper off. So looking further ahead to the 2020/21 admissions cycle, and an applicant pool in their 20s and early 30s that is among the least affected among reported cases, the international applicants we are speaking to are currently undeterred with their MBA plans.”


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