Most B-Schools Take A Hard Line On Deferrals For Incoming MBAs

When Harvard announced a more sympathetic approach to deferrals for international students hard-pressed by the global pandemic, other schools took notice. Harvard Gazette photo

For many international MBA students, it boils down to this: If a global pandemic isn’t an “extenuating circumstance,” what is?

That’s Marcelo Stilman’s question for Cornell. Selected to join the Johnson Graduate School of Management’s one-year Accelerated MBA program this fall, Stilman watched as the world imploded in March over the novel coronavirus COVID-19, upending schedules, graduations, and curricula, and moving instruction everywhere online for the foreseeable future. As economies around the world began to constrict, the native of Sao Paolo, Brazil, asked Cornell for a deferral to fall 2021, or in lieu of that, a return of his $3,000 deposit.

Cornell’s answer: Deferrals “are reserved for candidates who truly cannot begin their program due to extenuating circumstances.” Enroll in the fall or re-apply next year. In the latter case, Stilman would forfeit his deposit.

“If I was good enough to be accepted at Cornell this year, why are they not going to hold my spot next year?” Stilman, 31, says, adding that he knows other international students who got deferments last year, in both the MBA and a dual-degree engineering program. “That deposit is one-and-a-third times my monthly salary. If this pandemic is not an ‘extenuating circumstance,’ then I don’t know what is. It is crazy.”


Marcelo Stilman. LInkedIn photo

How many international students are in similar circumstances? Poets&Quants contacted 20 of the top B-schools to ask about their plans for international students who do not want to — or who cannot — enroll in fall classes that may be partially or entirely online, or who have myriad other concerns about travel, visa restrictions, personal safety, and more. We found that, in the words of one spokesperson, deferral policies remain “fluid” — with plans, in the words of another, being made “in real time.”

So far, most schools are holding the line: No deferral and no deposit reimbursement except in extenuating or extraordinary circumstances. (See page 3 for a table containing responses from the 20 schools contacted by P&Q.) Several schools add a dollop of compassion to their policies, and promise a fair hearing on a “case-by-case basis.” But with recent moves to be more accommodating by Harvard Business School and Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, that may be about to change. And other, systemic changes are likely to follow.

The Harvard move — giving admits a window between May 15 and June 1 to request a deferral to start the full-time MBA program in 2021 or later, instead of this fall — may be especially impactful. 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,” Shinewald 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 effectiveness of this deferral policy is actually more schools waiving standardized tests.”


Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on. In Brazil, where Marcelo Stilman is trying to figure out his future, the currency is undergoing a severe constriction, having lost half its purchasing power against the euro. His father, who is in the greatest at-risk population, cannot work, giving Marcelo breadwinner status in the family. Marcelo is also getting married this fall.

Cornell, which has lost nearly 22% of its application volume and 11.7% of its international enrollment in the two-year, full-time MBA over the last three years, says it still plans to have in-person classes in the fall, with students arriving on campus in early August. But in recognizing the potential for “travel disruptions and visa backlogs” for international students, the school is “actively exploring options for fall semester remote instruction,” according to a recent email to admits.

That’s not enough for Stilman. “I need more help,” he says. “Unfortunately, this is the situation right now. Not even for me as a Brazilian, but also for other international students that come from Asia, from Africa. If the university really wants to have an international student body, to bring this type of different mentality, we need help.”

A colleague living in Asia, 12 hours ahead of Ithaca, New York, agrees. For this admit to Cornell’s one-year Accelerated MBA, the choice is clear. Remote instruction would mean “living an upside-down lifestyle for as many as three months.” The student is asking for a deferral or a return of deposit.

Studying remotely would “extremely impact my mental and physical health,” the admit writes. Because face-to-face interaction is “the most important part of the whole MBA experience,” the admit would rather wait a year until travel to the U.S. is possible and in-person instruction resumes. Like Stilman, the admit cites other departments at Cornell that have shown a willingness to be more flexible about international student deferral.

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