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

Virtual instruction does not appeal to all international students. Time zone differences are among the difficulties some have cited.


Dawna Clarke, Darden executive director of MBA admissions. Darden photo

Marcelo Stilman always intended to return to Brazil once he finished his MBA. He wants to stay in the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps as a consultant. At 31, he is old for an MBA, which is what drew him to Cornell’s one-year program. He was also drawn to the strong Jewish community in Ithaca. 

Fortunately for Stilman, he has a backup plan. He was also accepted to the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and even as he prepared to attend Cornell, he had not yet declined Darden’s offer of admission.

“Thank God I didn’t say no to Darden,” Stilman says, “because I know that Darden is better than Cornell, at least in program statistics. But something that I really wanted is the accelerated MBA, because I’m older than the other guys. For me, it was interesting to be at the market as soon as possible, because I don’t want to change industries. Still, I know Darden is a strong choice.”

Another plus for Darden: The school has publicly expressed a greater willingness to be flexible with struggling internationals. It has a greater proportion of international students to begin with (33% in last fall’s incoming class), and a similar need to stanch the bleeding from three-plus years of application decline. Since 2017 the Darden School has lost 20% of its app volume.

Darden does not have an open deferral policy, which would be “totally inappropriate,” Dean Scott Beardsley tells P&Q. But the school does have a late-start option that would men beginning MBA studies in January, and Darden will work with each student on a case-by-case basis, he says.

“If someone has a compelling reason for a deferral, we are always open to listen to it,” Beardsley says. “Everybody who applied and got into school right now knows there is uncertainty with the way things may unfold in the fall. What unfolded in the spring nobody could have predicted. No one has a crystal ball. I think a lot of students are ready to get going with their education. The middle of a crisis is a great time to learn. We think that the vast majority of student applicants are going to like the options in the fall and the late-start option in January.”

Adds Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions at the Darden School: “We are highly committed to our incoming international students. We are dedicated to demonstrating compassion for our international admits and the challenges they are facing with regard to securing a visa. We will absolutely work with international students who see a deferral as their best option. However, we are working on some new compelling start-of-school options and resources to maximize their ability to attend Darden this year that we will announce soon.”


Clarke echoes sentiments expressed by many schools that have not yet amended their deferral policies. “We understand that our applicants applied to Darden before the global pandemic and its impacts on all university operations globally. The University of Virginia will decide the protocol for our start this fall in a way that ensures the health and well-being of our students and community,” she tells P&Q. “We are confident that we can continue to deliver the best MBA educational experience whether we are required to operate virtually or face to face as originally planned.

Alex Lawrence. UCLA photo

“We know that for some students the uncertainty around the possibility of some virtual learning during their program may be an issue, and we will work with individuals to understand their deferral request. As in past years, we will focus on the students’ needs, especially in this uncertain time, and will grant deferral requests on a case-by-case basis. The team at Darden is working on some alternatives to make attending Darden a compelling choice this year that we will soon announce, and, as a result, we are not expecting an overwhelming number of deferral requests.”

Alex Lawrence, assistant dean and director of MBA admissions and financial aid at UCLA Anderson School of Management, says like many, his school doesn’t have a plan for the fall that it is ready to announce yet. Right now — as at many schools — UCLA Anderson is biding its time, hoping for a safe re-opening of society that allows in-person MBA classes to start in August as they normally would.

In the meantime, there is no change in deferral policy at UCLA. Not yet.

But students are concerned, and Lawrence is spending a lot of time on the phone. One conversation recently focused on President Donald Trump announcement by tweet that he would close the U.S. to all immigration indefinitely.

“I had a conversation this morning with an international student,” Lawrence tells P&Q, “and they hadn’t seen the president’s tweet yet, but while they hadn’t made a decision on whether or not they were going to come, I shared with them again that we do not have a formal deferral policy with respect to saving a seat for somebody in future classes. However, they would have a different application process of more bled-down version of what somebody who hasn’t applied to UCLA Anderson in the past would go through.”


UCLA will continue its personal approach to incoming MBA students, Lawrence says. It’s an approach that may have played a role in mitigating the school’s losses over the past three years. As its peer schools have shed huge amounts of application volume since 2016, UCLA Anderson has lost only 15% — far less than other, similarly ranked schools. The school’s international population in the full-time MBA remains a solid if unspectacular 27.8%.

When challenges arise, “I make it a personal choice to speak with each incoming student, because the scenarios vary in family, medical, work-related issues,” Lawrence says. “Now it’s more the challenges of getting a visa. I’ve talked to some of those cases in the past where their arrival into the U.S. was going to pass our date. It’s a different set of circumstances now, obviously, because there’s so much up in the air. And so I and my staff stay in touch with the international community on an individual basis.

“We still have the broader communication to everyone because that is top of mind for everyone — including when will school start? What will school start look like? We stay with them on a weekly basis. I personally want to make sure that what we’re doing is as transparent as possible. I think that’s what the admits appreciate. Even if we don’t have a plan in place with exactly we want to do, they at least know that we have every intention. This is what we believe we’re going to do, and we just have to make adjustments as we go along.”

UCLA remains in contact, if not yet coordination, with peer schools, Lawrence says, naming Northwestern Kellogg, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Like them, we have a task force that is looking at what are our alternatives. So we do have contingency plans,” he says. “Here we are in April and typically we would be starting in three months. We know people would have to start making those relocation plans, but they can’t because of everything going on. 

“So I’ve been speaking with individuals, and they understand that we have every intention to start in August. However, we have and are working on contingency plans. We don’t want to release those because everything is changing so quickly. It’s very fluid. The president could tweet something and change everything. But we have every intention of starting in the early part of August.”

See the next page for a table showing the deferral policies of the top 20 U.S. business schools.

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