What Business Schools Will Look Like After The Pandemic

If something bad happens, something good will come of it.

That’s the optimist’s view of the health crisis that has driven the global economy into a deep recession. Life as we know it has been completely upended. Campuses have shut down and classes have been moved into the virtual world. Already, many business schools are experiencing financial distress from diminished endowments to a total wipeout of their executive education revenues.

So what good will come of it? Business school deans and professors, all struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, say there will be some positive lasting effects once the world recovers from the crisis. The immediate shock of the pandemic should help deans to shake up hard-to-budge faculty and steer their schools into a more profoundly innovative space.

For decades, the top business schools have been locked into the “slice, not share” model, according to Ted Snyder, the recently departed dean of Yale University’s School of Management. “Each school competes to get and maintain a small slice of students, faculty, prestige as high up in the quality pyramid as possible. That model has preempted efforts to compete for share. Trying to get more share would mean that schools would move down the quality pyramid.”


But the abrupt shift to remote instruction, forced on most schools due to the pandemic, could very well break the “slice, not share” model. “Faculty, current students, and alumni probably will want to continue with the status quo,” believes Snyder. “So I don’t think many schools will chart a new course that leverages their current strengths and promotes super-star faculty.  But I believe that this is the time for a bold move by a couple of schools within the “M7” or “N(ext)7” in the U.S. and by others outside the U.S. The shift to online takes on greater momentum due to visa problems. ”

How bold? Just about everyone agrees that technology will play a substantially larger role in higher education after the pandemic, whether in delivering far more learning or inviting off-campus visitors to virtually experience on-campus events. It’s a certainty there will be more flipped classes, online welcome weekends for admitted students who can’t come to campus, virtual bootcamps to jumpstart programs, and smarter use of technology for experiential learning,

But at a time when most business schools are simply trapped into a model of Zoom teaching, all those advances seem like table stakes. How many business schools will shrink their on-campus experience down to a single year with the core curriculum delivered online after an in-person orientation? How many more will adopt the model already in place at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business where students can fluidly switch from online to full-time or part-time by semester or year? Or perhaps there is an Executive MBA format that suits 20-something MBA students who still want to use the MBA experience to pivot into new careers? Will executive eduation, a major revenue contributor to many business schools, largely move online? Truth is, schools that draw students internationally will be hard pressed to retreat to their domestic markets and return to face-to-face teaching.

Will standardized testing permanently move from test centers into the home? Now that prospective students can take the GMAT or the GRE at-home on their own computers, why should that come to an end when testing centers can be reopened? Many believe it makes sense to offer at-home testing as an indefinite alternative, a way to lower the costs of administering the test and add 24-7 secheduling convenience to the process.


One consequence of the forced movement to virtual learning is that few if any faculty can sit on the sidelines of a learning revolution that has been occuring for at least the past ten years. “There is a lot of innovation going into remote learning,” says Antonio Bernardo, dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “We are going to learn how to do this better and better and we are going to share those best practices. I think there will be an extraordinary amount of collaboration tools that come out of it. We already have some good tools but you have to expect it will get a lot better. There is going to be a period of rapid teaching innovation and that has got to have obvious long-term impact. 

While the pandemic is imposing change on largely slow-moving bureaucracies a new generation of students who were largely raised online are also more suited to online learning. “People are becoming more comfortable with this modality,” believes Bernardo. “We may be able to save on some costs and students can certainly save on opportunity costs. We have a whole generation of students who are comfortable with this. When they pursue graduate degrees they may be more open to this as a modality. I have two kids in college and they are making the transition reasonably well. It doesn’t work for all of their classes but for most, it works really well. These are future MBA applicants.”

Geoff Garrett, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, foresees a newly energized student population, among several positives that will come out of the crisis. “Students will arrive back on campus eventually deeply affected by this pandemic but determined to make a difference in a world that has been turned upside down,” he says. “We will study and learn from this experience so that future generations are better prepared for the next crisis. Our current deep dive into remote instruction will mean even greater use of technology to efficiently deploy faculty resources. Business schools will continue to serve a vital role with applications possibly rising, not just because prospective students foresee fewer opportunity costs, but because they acknowledge the value of two immutable assets we provide: objective knowledge and community.”


“There are lots of questions and not a lot of answers at this point,” concedes Sangeet Chowfla, the CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council. “Will schools open in the fall? What will happen to yield in the summer? Will classes be in person or online? I am not certain anyone has a crystal ball on it.”

So Chowfla is looking at the crisis through three separate timeframes: what could happen in the short-term, the medium-term and the long-term. The least answerable questions are the more immediate ones that include the impact of the crisis on admissions and whether the next academic year will start on a physical campus.

The greatest concern in the medium-term is the impact due to the recession. “Recessions historically lead to growth in application volumes and a flight to safety,” says Chowfla, “and we are beginning to see schools with round 3 apps that are up on the previous year. That is particularly true for applications from  domestic candidates in the U.S. who may offset any international declines.”

Longer-term, the focus is on the smart use of technology and the potential for changed attitudes among international candidates upon which many business schools are highly dependent. “A big question is how this pandemic will fundamentally impact international mobility,” says Chowfla. “If we do not get therapeutics and vaccines in place, we can see a greater desire for students to stay closer at home which would impact diversity in the classroom. That would be a big loss. Anything that puts up barriers to international student mobility is not a good thing. There is already a lot of concern over student visas.”


One rather pleasant surprise for many schools has been the ease with which it’s possible to to bring outside protagonists in case studies to classes remotely.  “Faculty will bring in a broader range of guest speakers who will not have to travel to campus,” says Sri Zaheer, dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “Flipping of classes will become much more acceptable and normal so material that has to be delivered via lecture will be largely recorded so that our in-person classes can be reserved for what is really valuable like case discussions and experiential work. Those trends were already unfolding. There is definitely going to be a rethink of some things but some of it is an acceleration of what was happening already.” 

Of course, one other obvious result of the pandemic is that more business schools and programs will disappear. “A bunch of business schools are going to go out of business,” predicts Jeffrey Pfeffer, a long-time professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is less optimistic that much else will change, particularly at the top business schools. “I don’t see a big move to online. People want the in-person experience.”

Srikant Datar, senior associate dean for university affairs at Harvard Business School, has a different perspective. “In my view, I firmly and strongly believe that coming out of this crisis we all will have developed a new muscle, a new way of engaging with students, a new way of finding the best aspects of online education to combine it with the model by which we are all physically together,” he says. “Maybe finally at the end of all of this, we will have learned so much about what a very good hybrid classroom might look like. I feel with a high probability that it will not be the same. We will not go back to what it looked like before.”

Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett

Geoff Garrett, Dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania 

Everyone agrees the Covid-19 outbreak is one of the most unpredictable and powerful forces in memory. I’m inspired by the countless examples of resiliency and compassion displayed by Wharton alumni, faculty, staff and students. At least 625 Wharton courses are now taking place remotely with 250 faculty members teaching from their homes. What a Herculean effort by hundreds of people, all of them eager to help out.

In the face of this tsunami, early in March we resolved to take whatever positive action we could. So, while every part of the School implemented emergency contingency plans, I asked our faculty to help me create a “Managing Uncertainty” course. As a result, more than a dozen senior professors and Penn President Amy Gutmann jumped on board to offer over 2,000 Penn students insights into past and current crises.

Life has indeed changed for business schools but there is also much to look forward to.

Consider the following:

  • Students will arrive back on campus (eventually) deeply affected by this pandemic but determined to make a difference in a world that has been turned upside down.
  • We will study and learn from this experience–at Wharton we have already started analyzing the data–so that future generations are better prepared for the next crisis. Our current deep dive into remote instruction will mean even greater use of technology to efficiently deploy faculty resources.
  • Business schools will continue to serve a vital role with applications possibly rising, not just because prospective students foresee fewer opportunity costs, but because they acknowledge the value of two immutable assets we provide: objective knowledge and community.

Wharton has seen a lot over its nearly 140 years but nothing like what we face today. Though we find ourselves traversing an uncharted landscape I am confident that this challenging time will make us stronger and more appreciative of each other than ever before.

For more perspective from leading business school deans, go to the following pages.

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