In a move that will cause reverberations across the graduate business education universe, Harvard Business School has announced that it will offer deferment to incoming MBAs should they decide against attending fall classes that may be taught partially or entirely online because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an email today (April 24) to accepted applicants, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid Director Chad Losee and Jana Kierstead, executive director of the MBA and doctoral programs, write that admits will have a window between May 15 and June 1 to request a deferral to start the full-time MBA program in 2021 — or even later — instead of this fall.
“We realize that the world has changed significantly since you applied — your employment, health, visa, or financial situation (or that of your families) may have shifted in the past few months,” Losee and Kierstead write. “To provide you as much flexibility as possible, we will consider allowing you to defer your offer of admission.”
HBS will no longer accept deferral requests after June 1 “beyond medical emergencies, military deployments, or joint Harvard degrees,” the pair write. “While we want to be as supportive as possible to you, one real constraint is the operational capacity of the faculty and the school.”
DEFERMENTS MIGHT BE SPREAD OUT OVER THE NEXT TWO YEARS
In an interesting move, Losee and Kierstead said in their letter they might have to spread the deferred enrollment over the next two years — starting in 2021 and 2022 — if enough current accepted students request the deferment.
“If we are in that situation, we will do our best to honor — but cannot guarantee — your preference of a one-year versus two-year deferral, as we balance the backgrounds and perspectives represented in the next few HBS classes,” the email reads.
“While none of us could have anticipated COVID-19 when going through the admissions cycle, we have always sought individuals of competence and character who can lead in uncertain situations. We chose you because we see in you the attributes that the HBS community and the world need now more than ever. While we offer the choice about deferral in all respect for the challenges that you face, our hope is that the majority of you who can will decide to enroll at HBS this fall and use this as a time to learn and to deepen your capacity to lead. We look forward to partnering with you to make this a spectacular year at Harvard Business School.”
SHOULD HAVARD SIMPLY POSTPONE THE FALL SEMESTER? THE CRIMSON THINKS IT SHOULD
The university has yet to decide whether the fall semester will begin online or in a physical classroom. Unless that decision comes by June 1, it would make for a still difficult decision for HBS admits. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, published an editorial this past week urging the university to skip the semester if it has to be virtual. In an editorial under the headline, “Better Late Than Zoom,” the newspaper argued if the university is considering having an online fall semester without granting students full freedom to take leaves of absence, they should instead postpone the semester.
The Crimson editors maintained that a Harvard education “simply cannot be replaced by classes over Zoom. Without the physical gathering of students and professors, much is lost. Virtual technologies, no matter how smooth and high-resolution, cannot replace dining hall conversations, the exchanges on the way in and out of classrooms, and the richness of body language. What remains, when you take these out, is a subpar educational, not to mention social, experience. Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana is fond of reminding pretty much anyone who will listen that learning takes place mostly outside of the classroom. But with online college, there is nowhere outside the classroom.”
The students also asked the university for “an outline of the different possible scenarios and their respective contingency plans, as part of a push to raise the bar for effective and frequent communication. We were kicked off campus with only five days notice. We should be afforded more time to process and prepare for the different futures that may lay ahead of us now.”
‘IF THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE, IT OPENS THE FLOODGATES FOR A MILLION EXCUSES’
Admission consultants expressed surprise at the HBS announcement. “It’s unprecedented, but then, everything is unprecedented now,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, a top MBA admissions consulting firm. “I appreciate that everyone is under tremendous pressure. As Poets&Quants reported, the school is losing a lot of revenue. And of course, online classes don’t make sense at HBS. So it’s a rock and a hard place. Having said that, I am surprised. They did seem to be holding the line on only allowing deferrals for visa reasons. If this is what it looks like, it opens the floodgates for a million excuses. I just have to wonder what the quality of the experience will be like for those who don’t defer. It could devolve into a big mess, and create even more uncertainty.”
Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com, believes the HBS move reflects a trio of efforts: compassion for admitted students, a way to manage yield and class composition, and a step to reduce complaints and refund requests over the transition to online classes. “This option gives students a choice: If they are hesitant to start their MBA partially online or after reading articles about canceled internships and withdrawn job offers, they can defer — or forever hold their peace,” says Abraham. “They won’t lose their spot in HBS, but they can delay the beginning of their coursework and increase the likelihood that they will have the networking and social interaction that they want in their MBA program. Not to mention recruiting in the event they cannot have it at the beginning of the next academic year.”
It’s also a way to help HBS manage yield–the percentage of admitted students who enroll. “HBS gives admitted students two weeks in which to defer,” points out Abraham. “HBS will then have a much better idea of who is going to show up for the first day of class and how many people to admit off its waitlist. It’s going to reduce the yield and waitlist guesswork. Plus HBS will determine if the deferred student starts in 2021 or 2022. And it’s a step to reduce complaining from next year’s class if the Class of 2022 does start online or with various COVID restrictions in place. They all will have had the option to defer and didn’t take it. That’s the ‘forever hold your peace’ part.'”
HBS LETTER IS SILENT ON INTERNATIONALS WHO WANT TO START ON TIME BUT CAN’T GET A VISA
What reaction other schools may have to the change in policy at HBS is uncertain. “None of the others have HBS’ endowment and financial strength,” she adds. “If MBA programs can afford something along these lines, they may be tempted to do so because they too will want to manage yield and waitlists more effectively while also reducing complaints and refund requests in next year’s class. One situation that the HBS letter doesn’t address is the accepted international students who want to start on time and in person, but can’t get a visa. Is their choice, defer or risk losing their spot? The letter is silent on that question.”
Jeremy Shinewald, founder and CEO of mbaMission, one of the largest MBA admissions consulting firms, believes that Harvard’s peers may have little choice except to follow HBS on deferrals. “It is going to be harder and harder for other schools not to follow suit,” he says. “More liberal deferral policies are coming. Because of that, I expect even more applicants to jump into this year’s round three, fearing that many places are already being taken in future years and it might be tougher to gain an acceptance in the next two. I imagine that admissions officers will have to do some reassuring next year, possibly sharing deferral numbers so that future applicants are not discouraged. I also imagine that some schools will stick with very liberal GMAT/GRE policies to ensure that they keep application volumes high. I think that the long term effect of this deferral policy is actually more schools waiving standardized tests.”
Yet another prominent consultant, Esther Magna of Stacy Blackman Consulting, praised the school’s decision as “bold and brave,” “HBS has now united compassion with inspiration,” says Magna. “Its decision to grant deferrals was also presented as a call to action for admitted students to be the leaders and change-makers that the world needs deeply at this time. We predict that HBS admits who can logistically enroll for fall 2020 will follow through and do so more energetically now, as a result of the tone set by the HBS communication today.
WHAT KELLOGG, COLUMBIA AND UVA DARDEN ARE DOING
“Each program will create its own plan,” adds Magna. “Although they don’t intend to grant deferrals, Kellogg opted to show its empathy for admits in other ways, via a third round test waiver and reconsideration process for dinged applications. Taking a different approach, CBS has communicated informally that deferral requests for reasons such as visa delays for internationals will be granted while US applicants request deferrals will likely be declined and instead encouraged to reapply. Darden announced that they would offer a January intake as well as fall intake option out of the desire to show flexibility and support to its admitted student class.”
HBS’ decision to allow deferrals is among the most impactful yet at a U.S. MBA program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Poets&Quants is tracking this story at the top-20 U.S.-based MBA programs and will have a comprehensive report soon on the decisions made by other elite B-schools.
HBS’ ANNOUNCEMENT TO ACCEPTED STUDENTS
The complete text of Losee and Kierstead’s email:
We hope this note finds you safe and well. We were happy to see many of you tuned in yesterday to the fireside chat with Dean Nitin Nohria and student leaders, Rachel Brown and Billy Tabrizi. In that fireside chat, Dean Nohria previewed discussions we’ve been having about potential changes to our deferral policy for this year, which is why we are writing today.
We realize that the world has changed significantly since you applied – your employment, health, visa, or financial situation (or that of your families) may have shifted in the past few months. To provide you as much flexibility as possible, we will consider allowing you to defer your offer of admission.
The form to request a deferral will open on May 15 and close on June 1. After June 1, we will not accept any deferral requests beyond medical emergencies, military deployments, or joint Harvard degrees. While we want to be as supportive as possible to you, one real constraint is the operational capacity of the faculty and the school. If many of you choose to defer, we may need to spread your enrollment over the next two years (starting in 2021 or 2022). If we are in that situation, we will do our best to honor – but cannot guarantee – your preference of a one-year versus two-year deferral as we balance the backgrounds and perspectives represented in the next few HBS classes.
While none of us could have anticipated COVID-19 when going through the admissions cycle, we have always sought individuals of competence and character who can lead in uncertain situations. We chose you because we see in you the attributes that the HBS community and the world need now more than ever. While we offer the choice about deferral in all respect for the challenges that you face, our hope is that the majority of you who can will decide to enroll at HBS this fall and use this as a time to learn and to deepen your capacity to lead. We look forward to partnering with you to make this a spectacular year at Harvard Business School.
We know you have questions. Please join us for a webinar this Tuesday, April 28 at 12:00pm ET where we will be joined by Dean Nitin Nohria. Please register and submit any questions you may have here. The Admissions team will also hold office hours to discuss any remaining questions you may have after attending the webinar – more information will be provided early next week.
Until then, please be well and stay safe.