When Harvard Business School sent an email to admitted students on April 24, letting them know there would be an open period in which all admitted students could request a deferral to start the full-time MBA program, no other major top-ranked business school had made a similarly liberal option for admitted students. And now, more than a week later, HBS still remains the only program to do so. According to Chad Losee, the managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid, the decision in late April was a culmination of conversations and information gathering that went back months to January and February when the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to spread.
“It’s such an unusual year. For people who applied in September and were admitted in December, none of us could’ve imagined where we would be at this point in time,” Losee says on a phone call with Poets&Quants. “So I think we just really tried to stay in close touch with those students that we admitted and supporting them as they were going through all of this and I would say just over the last couple of months, we started to hear from students about the personal situations that they were going through in different parts of the world.”
Losee says they began learning about tough family situations, work situations, and a general overwhelming sense of uncertainty heading into next fall as the pandemic started accelerating around the world. “We heard from students that had gone through some really tough situations,” Losee continues. “Family members that had lost their jobs. Students were feeling like they needed to continue working to help their families. People who were getting sick or having people close to them getting sick. People who are on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 in their countries. So, there are people working in governments and companies who are admitted members of our class who have been working days and nights for weeks being on the frontlines of things. So, I think that’s where the discussion started, hearing from the students and the turmoil they were going through.”
HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL LOOKED AT A ‘RANGE OF STANCES’ BEFORE DECIDING ON ONE DEFERRAL POLICY
Then students admitted to Round 2 began expressing their own difficulties making a decision based on the amount of uncertainty around if Harvard — and other schools — would open campus this fall. And if so, in what capacity. All the while, Losee and his team, along with other administrators at Harvard Business School and Harvard University, continued discussions and began “scenario-planning.” Part of that scenario-planning included what to do with potential deferral options.
“Our normal stance on deferrals is to be very upfront with people as they’re applying and say apply the year that you’re ready to enroll,” Losee explains. “We don’t normally grant many deferrals except for emergency situations. But this year just felt entirely different based on what we were hearing from students and what we were observing.”
So HBS put together a “range of stances” on deferrals, Losee says. Part of that included thinking about everyone involved in the process including students, faculty, operations on the campus and what the full range of consequences would be for each population depending on what sort of deferral stance the school decided to take. All the while, Losee says, they wanted to move quickly to give admitted students as much time as possible to decide and prepare but also not make a hasty decision.
Of course, if any school in the world could afford to adopt such a liberal policy, it would be Harvard. The school’s MBA program boasts the highest yield–the percentage of admitted students who enroll–of any prestigious option. In a typical year, roughly 90% of the applicants who are accepted show up on campus in the fall (see table below). In comparison, the yield rate for Wharton’s MBA program is 63%. So starting from a higher yield rate significantly reduced the risk of opening the gates to deferalls.
Another factor in the decision, was the proactive plan to keep a larger Round 2 waitlist. Some fortunate timing allowed HBS to increase the number of applicants placed on the waitlist instead of creating another application round like many other schools had done, Losee says. On March 20th, the U.S. State Department announced it would temporarily suspend routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates around the world because of the spread of COVID-19. That was 11 days before HBS was due to send out Round 2 decisions, and Losee and his team had time to add an increased number of applicants to the waitlist. “Which we did coming out of Round 2,” Losee says. “That’s part of how we handled it instead of adding additional rounds or changing everything.”
DECIDING WHICH SORT OF DEFERRAL STANCE TO TAKE
Ultimately, Losee says, the decision to open deferment to all admitted students came down to prioritizing “what would be best” for the incoming students and, more candidly, not having a good way of deciding which students would have their deferment requests accepted.
“There are a number of different consequences for different deferral policies you choose. In the end, we just felt that it was best to prioritize what would be best for incoming students,” Losee says. “So, we want to recognize the anxiety and uncertainty that they have and be as generous as possible with them. There were a lot of discussions of ‘would you allow deferrals in this situation or that situation?’ And everyone has very unique situations they are dealing with and, frankly, it’s really hard to be in the middle of that and say, that situation is worthy of a deferral and this one is not.”
Losee says offering a deferral to everyone seemed most “in-line” with the values of their community and most helpful to students.
“At the same time, we have real operational constraints, and so we wanted to extend as much generosity and flexibility as we could but also be transparent about the constraints that we have to operate under,” Losee says. “We’re doing our best to relax as many constraints as we can, but we have a faculty, and a campus, and other things that we have to work within.” If a big number of people defer, they may not be able to accommodate them in next year’s class. So part of what they wanted to do was let them know upfront that if a large number deferred for next year, they might not be able to accommodate all of those deferrals.”