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

A woman and two men, all wearing suits, walk toward Harvard Business School.

Harvard Business School


The shortfall of some 220 students occurred after a webinar in April in which HBS officials, including Dean Nohria, Jana Kierstead, executive director of MBA and doctoral programs, and Managing Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid Chad Losee, attempted to convince its admitted students to come to the school. “I really do think this is a moment in which people have to make a leap of faith of any kind,” said Dean Nohria. “Because if you don’t choose to come to us, you’re making a different kind of a leap of faith. Every person on this call will have to make some leap of faith about their own developmental journey of leaders.”

Several admission consultants praised the school for not dipping deeper into its applicant pool to merely fill out the class. “I’m impressed,” says Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “They never blinked. As an HBS grad, I’m really happy that their strategy was successful – and they are getting a robust, diverse class.  I wasn’t sure for a while, as I talked through the pros and cons with a number of students, U.S.-based and international. I know that HBS as an institution can rise to the challenge and the class will be stronger for it.”

Tyler Cormney, co-founder of MBA Prep School, seconds that reasoning. “The fact that Harvard Business School let market forces rather than central planning dictate their incoming class size is aligned with the principles the school teaches its students,” says Cormney. “I predict the other MBA programs are going to find themselves in a similar position in the fall in terms of shortfalls in students and revenues. HBS offered its admitted students the freedom to decided whether or not to defer. This means the incoming class of 720 people will be composed of students who are committed to making the most of their MBA education, regardless of the form it must take in response to this health crisis.”

Fortuna’s Symonds also had praise for the school’s decision on deferrals. “Chad Losee’s team were already aware of the challenges that Covid-19 was creating as they began interviewing R2 applicants and have had the chance to run a deep waitlist for a potential shortfall,” believes Symonds. “If there is one school that can fill those 200 places it is HBS! But they have clearly chosen not to dig more deeply into the applicant pool, and it will be desperately disappointing for those who have been on the waitlist and were not finally offered a place. Given the impassioned case made by the dean, Nitin Nohria, to take a leap of faith and start the program this year they might be disappointed to have lost such a significant percentage. But in recent months the school has shown real leadership and empathy in recognizing the individual circumstances and challenges that admits face in the wake of the pandemic, and are comfortable with the decision not to simply make up the numbers.”


To accommodate those deferrals over the next two years, the school has left open the possibility that it could add a section of 90 students to its Class of 2023 and Class of 2024. Still, there is little doubt that with these deferrals, getting into HBS next year will be more competitive than ever. “For those anxious about what this means for their chances of admissions next year, we must hope that the school does indeed open up more sections of 90 students next year as Chad discussed at the CentreCourt MBA Festival last month,” adds Symonds. “It will be tough enough to secure a place in what will likely be a record-breaking year for application volume to HBS, and if 15 to 20% of the places are already accounted for then things just became a lot tougher!”

Jeremy Shinewald, founder of mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm, agrees that the deferrals will make it even more difficult to gain an admit from HBS next year. “Applicants in the coming admissions season are facing a perfect storm,” says Shinewald. “Between this year’s deferrals, past 2+2 deferrals, and surging interest due to volatility in the economy, this should be the most competitive year at HBS on record. There might be 700 available spots for next year’s class with all of the deferrals taken into account – some of this class is being deferred for two years – and, at this point, if HBS surges to more than ten thousand applicants again…. you do the math.”

Abraham also believes the current unrest in the U.S. helped to push some admits at Harvard into deferring. “I wonder how much the unrest following George Floyd’s death and the recent announcement that the Trump administration may be considering a suspension of the OPT program could have played a role in the numbers who decided to defer Harvard Business School,” she says. “Certainly the timing of these events would not have helped HBS. More unrest or a suspension of the OPT program will not bode well for the business schools hoping people will show up this summer and fall.”


It is also possible that at least some first-year MBA students may decide not to return for their second year. “Our next key milestone is 8/10, by which time our EC students will need to confirm their plans,” they added.  “We’re hopeful that an equally strong contingent will choose to return after a summer of internships, coursework, and personal and professional development.  It’s wonderful to see the MBA classes beginning to taking shape.”

Crispi and Nohria also referred to what they called “a turning point’ at the school.  “For twelve weeks now (!) we’ve been focused on exit:  how we de-densified our campus, moved to remote work, finished our courses and programs, and wound down the semester.  While the start of the new academic year isn’t technically upon us yet, we nonetheless feel as though we’ve turned a corner to a period of forward-looking activity.

“Last week, following a call out to the faculty for ideas, we received dozens of proposals for how we might re-imagine the MBA Program next year to accommodate teaching and learning that may be in person, virtual, or some combination of the two.  The proposals are, in a word, great.  Jan Rivkin and Jana Kierstead, and the faculty/student/staff workstreams they’ve charged with enhancing the student experience, will be looking carefully at them in the coming days to see how they map together.  At first glance, we see lots of creative thinking—about class size, length, and frequency; about mixes of synchronous and asynchronous learning; about leveraging class guests; and about creating opportunities for reflection, for intimacy, and for engagement.  Here, too, we can feel a new energy building in anticipation of the launch of the fall semester.”


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