Harvard Business School’s Next MBA Class Will Be More Than 200 Students Short

View from the back of a Harvard Business School classroom while class is in session. Data is projected onto a screen between two blackboards. A student has his hand up. Three flags are shown hanging on the wall along the side of the room, representing Israel, Cuba, and Germany.

Class is in session at Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School today (June 2) disclosed that it will enroll an entering class of MBA students this fall that will be more than 200 students shy of its more typical 930-to-940-student cohort. After dipping into its waitlist, the school expects to welcome a class of only 720 students, nearly a quarter less than normal, because many students decided to defer their enrollment by a year or two.

The size of the rollback in the class is a surprise. It would be the smallest entering class at HBS since the early 1950s when enrollment was impacted by the Korean War and a new $15 application fee established to discourage casual candidates from applying to the school. Many observers assumed that Harvard would have relatively few takers of its offer of a deferment to any admit who wanted one. The school gave every student admitted to the Class of 2022 the opportunity to defer their admissions offer and join a later class. Many observers concluded that few admitted students would take HBS up on its offer, especially because a granted deferment could mean a wait of up to two years. That clearly was not the case, raising the prospect that its deferment offer backfired, making the school less likely to enroll a normal-sized class.

The disclosure was made in a daily coronavirus update on the school’s website by Dean Nitin Nohria and Executive Dean for Administration Angela Crispi. They put a positive spin on the news. “The deferral window closed yesterday, and we are delighted to let you know that roughly 700 students confirmed they will join us in the fall,” the pair wrote. “After drawing from our strong waitlist, and knowing there may still be some small shifts because of extenuating circumstances, we expect to enroll a class of about 720.


“Moreover, the composition of the students who are joining us is similar to those who chose to defer, which means the class will have the diversity we strive for and the critical mass to carry on all of our usual curricular and extracurricular activities.  We’re equally happy to have given the other admitted students an opportunity to matriculate at a time that works better for them.  We look forward to welcoming all of them to the HBS community over the next two years and will explore increasing our class size a bit as they enroll.”

Harvard did not disclose what percentage of its deferrals is international or domestic. For many admitted students who live abroad, it has been difficult to nearly impossible to obtain a student visa to travel to the U.S. due to the pandemic. Harvard has said it plans to open in the fall, though the format of the start is still to be determined. The semester may begin virtually, in person, or as a hybrid—with the goal to be in person as soon as it is safe to do so. Some admits may have deferred because they did not want to enroll for virtual classes which do not have the same appeal as an in-person experience.

For the Class of 2021, the school received 9,228 applications, admitted 1,058 students and enrolled 938. HBS did not disclose its application volume or acceptance rate–which was 11.5% that year. Unlike many other business schools, however, Harvard Business School did not extend its admissions deadlines to accommodate potential applicants nor did it waive any of its requirements such as GMAT or GRE test scores. And unlike Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, HBS did not invite already rejected candidates to appeal their decisions. Most other business schools, however, also did not issue a blanket deferral for all admitted students, instead evaluating such requests on a case-by-case basis.


The school’s lack of a round three application deadline, eliminated two years ago, also gave HBS less flexibility to build a full class. Over the past two years, Harvard has lost 1,123 applicants, representing a 10.8% slide in applications, from 10,351 in 2017-2018 when applicants topped the 10,000-mark for the first time since 2002. “HBS is the only school among the M7 without a R3 (or rolling admission until April), and no doubt missed out on some great applicants in the spring who will now be heading to Stanford, Wharton and other top schools in a couple of months,” says Matt Symonds, a co-founder of Fortuna Admissions, one of the leading MBA admission consultants.

“Feelings among the rest of the M7 will be mixed. On the one hand, Boston is not now scooping up talent that was otherwise set to take their place in the MBA classrooms of Philadelphia, Chicago or New York. On the other hand, if HBS has lost over 20% of the incoming class, admittedly with the most flexible deferral policy, then that is a clear indicator of the challenge that others are facing to fill seats for the fall.”

In April, the school predicted that the COVID-19 induced recession would lead to revenue shortfalls in virtually every part of the school’s operations. At that time, HBS expected revenue to plunge by nearly $115 million, a prospect that would turn an expected operating surplus of $43 million into a loss of $22 million in fiscal 2020. Last year, HBS reported revenue of $925 million, up substantially from the year-earlier $856 million. It’s not clear if those projections accounted for the loss of some 220 students. With MBA tuition at Harvard costing $73,440, along with $14,130 for a room and utilities, the loss of tuition and dorm revenue on those students would approach $19.3 million in the next academic year, without accounting for savings on fellowship support.

It is also true that few other business schools would be able to so easily sustain that large of a loss. “Most MBA programs, even top MBA programs, would find a 20%+ enrollment drop stomach-churning,” says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com. “They cannot afford to maintain all the programs surrounding the MBA and their staffs with that kind of class shrinkage. Perhaps other MBA programs may feel a little smug now because they did not give that deferral option to admitted students. Most said if you can’t get a visa, we’ll let you attend remotely, or they pushed back start dates. However, they did not give blanket permission to defer.

“But that possible smugness is probably coupled with a lot of stress and nerves. If 20% of HBS’s class chooses not to show up and defer, what are their incoming students going to do? Will they beg for deferrals? Will they just not show and forfeit deposits? Will they attend remotely if they can’t get a visa or have concerns that make them less interested. No one will know for sure until class starts. Other MBA programs are very nervous about summer melt.”

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