Amid Southern Resurgence, Vanderbilt Sees Near Doubling Of MBA Apps

Vanderbilt photo

Another business school has joined the Southern comeback. Following similar reports at leading MBA programs in the U.S. South including Duke Fuqua, Rice Jones, and Virginia Darden, Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management has announced a huge leap in applications in 2019-2020, accompanied by a big drop in the school’s acceptance rate.

The Owen School finished with 1,200 applications for the admissions cycle, a 79% jump in interest over last year’s total of 672. What’s more, though the school added a fourth round in response to the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, Owen already was in better shape before that extra 55-day round began in early April. None of this good news came at the expense of women or minorities in the MBA, as the Nashville, Tennessee-based Owen School increased its share of both in its much-larger class of 182. Only in the enrollment of international students — who were offered, and many of whom accepted, deferrals — did Owen give up ground from last year’s class.

“We did add a round four,” says Sue Oldham, associate dean of MBA operations at Vanderbilt Owen. “We originally had three rounds and we added the fourth — but even going into round three, we were already up in application volume. To say, ‘Oh, that 1,200 apps is all attributed to coronavirus,’ it’s actually not true. We actually surpassed last year’s total app volume in February.

“For the team, I think there was a lot of relief and exhaling going, ‘This strategy that we have in place — that took a lot to get things in place to make the strategy happen — we were seeing the benefits of it before the coronavirus. Obviously, when coronavirus happened, the apps started coming in as well.”


Vanderbilt’s Sue Oldham. Owen photo

Across the U.S. South, coronavirus has brought a boom in applications to business schools. The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia saw a 364% jump in apps in the third round this year, fueling a 25% overall increase. In Houston, Texas, apps exploded 63% at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, amounting to nearly 400 more this cycle over last for a total of 1,021. About an hour west by air, the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin just reported a mild application increase that reversed three years of declines. UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School received just over 1,900 applications, a 43.7% rise from last cycle; nearby Fuqua School of Business at Duke University experienced a 10.5% increase in apps; and Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, where apps dropped more than 24% in one year between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, defied expectations to increase slightly this year.

At Vanderbilt, which was ranked No. 23 in by U.S. News this year and 28th on Poets&Quant’s most recent list, the focus on boosting the school’s application volume was intentional, Sue Oldham says. The result of the school’s outreach strategy was a massive jump in apps from both women and under-represented minorities.

“We knew that the one thing we really need to focus on is application volume, because application volume always signals one, interest, and number two, are you even on people’s radar? If you’re not on people’s radar, clearly you’re not getting the application,” Oldham says. “For us this year, with 1,200 applications and a 79% increase in application volume, that’s a five-year high. If you look at the breakdowns in terms of international, domestic, women, under-represented minority, military — all of those increased as well.

“What’s interesting was, we had a 28% increase in international applications in a world where all the articles are pointing at ‘No one’s applying to U.S. schools.’ And I think one of the things that we’re really proud of is our women and underrepresented minorities. We had a 100% increase in application volume from women this year, and we had a 181% increase in under-represented minority applications. Those percentages are almost silly to say out loud, but you have to remember Owen’s scale. We are small. We’re a small program. Last year we had a total of 54 applications from our under-represented minority population — I like to joke that that’s like one app per state. But this year we had 152 applications from under-represented minorities.

“Slow and steady — we just want to make sure that the strategy we have in place, what we have to execute, is doable, is scalable, but it’s also sustainable. We want to make sure that this is not a one-year thing, and then you never hear from us again.”


With so many apps from women, Owen improved its female MBA population to 32% from 30%; with so many from URMs, the school’s minority population grew 50%, to 18% from 12%.

The Owen School’s big move in appealing to URMs was this summer’s launch of a new diversity, equity, and inclusion program: CARE. Nate Luce, senior director of marketing and communications, says CARE is “an accountability tool,” a program through which the school demonstrates its commitment to fostering a safe and welcoming community.

“We understand combatting social injustice is a long-term priority, we know that protecting students from Covid-19 is a fluid task, so we track the progress and initiatives of several different working groups as they pop up and complete their work,” Luce tells P&Q. “We kind of view the situation with the pandemic and the situation for social change within the same kind of lens. When it comes to the business school community, we want to foster a sense of community that is safe. Safety takes on different connotations. It’s not just one side of safety or the other. We have to consider everything now, so we try to make a pretty concentrated effort to focus on both things at the same time.

“That’s not to say that when the pandemic gets under more control that we’re just going to scrap the whole thing. CARE will still remain, but really, it’s a way for us to build a framework around what we’re doing.”

CARE stands for Communicate, Acknowledge, Respect, and Educate. Among the recent related actions by the school is the publication of a finalized commitment to Diversity & Inclusion crafted and voted on by faculty, students, and staff, with language designed “to be more inclusive, more direct, and more actionable,” Luce says.

“We encourage and empower people to make their own decisions and move things forward as they see fit,” he says. “CARE is a framework can help bring that all together and help give us some guiding principles that we can live by.”

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