It’s hard to believe now, but at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic this spring many feared that the chaos of Covid-19 would negatively impact graduate business education, hitting business schools where it hurts most: MBA applications, which already had been mired in a multi-year slump. With a few exceptions, the opposite has been true: The chance to get into an elite business school, whether in the United States or Europe, when the gates have swung open a little wider was too much for prospective applicants to pass up.
Applications to MBA programs are up just about everywhere in 2019-2020, but nowhere are they up more than Southern California, where USC Marshall School of Business reports an astounding 66.4% increase in MBA apps, 1,260 more than the previous cycle. The Marshall School’s 3,159 total apps also represent a 56.6% improvement on its previous school-record season of 2017-2018. The flood allowed Marshall to grow its admit pool this year by 200, to 768, and still drop its acceptance rate by nearly 20%.
How did they do it? Like almost every other B-school, Marshall responded to Covid-19 with flexibility in key areas, notably on the submission of Graduate Management Admission Test or Graduate Record Exam scores. It also emulated its peers by extending its final application round, in Marshall’s case from the middle of April to the beginning of June. But unlike everyone else, Marshall has always had a “rolling” submission policy after the final deadline, and this year the school’s admissions team leaned into that period and welcomed heightened applicant interest stretching all the way into the middle of August.
“I’ve been doing this for about 25 years now and this was certainly the most challenging admissions cycle — for a lot of different reasons, but certainly application volume was a piece of it,” says Evan Bouffides, director of MBA admissions at Marshall. “It was a long cycle and like many schools we extended our application deadline, which certainly had a lot to do with the number of applications that we got. This year it pretty much went until the bitter end — till just before class started.”
PERCEPTIONS OF AN ECONOMIC SLUMP, TEST FLEXIBILITY CONTRIBUTE TO APP BOOM
USC Marshall has made news in recent years for the right reasons — such as when it became the first major B-school to achieve gender parity in the full-time MBA — and the wrong — such as the controversy over the 2018 firing of popular Dean Jim Ellis. But beneath the headlines, Marshall has quietly become one of the bigger top-25 rank climbers of the last few years, moving from 22nd to 19th in Poets&Quants‘ most recent ranking and into 17th place on the last two U.S. News lists.
Now, with the enrollment of its latest class — and having lowered its acceptance rate 5.6 percentage points, or 18.7%, to 24.3% from 29.9% — Marshall is poised to make even more rankings noise. That makes the prolonged stress of an admissions season like no other worth it, Bouffides tells Poets&Quants.
“Frankly it was a lot of late nights and weekend work, and we kind of stuck to our guns in terms of how we were going to do the assessment process, though we had to adjust some,” he says. “We typically close our last application round on April 15, depending on the year, and then we do rolling admissions afterward. Historically, at least for the last five or six years, we were still in the position where we would accept applications past the last deadline on a first-come, first-served basis.
“But that rolling admission period typically doesn’t yield that many applications. This year we extended our final deadline by about a month or six weeks, and then we continued to have rolling admissions after that — and for a lot of different reasons, there were a lot of people who were willing and able to apply not only for that last round but also in our rolling admissions phase too.”
Chief among those reasons: perceptions of a slumping economy.
“Certainly the proximate causes of this had everything to do with the pandemic and in part any sort of corresponding real or perceived view of the economy, and that placed more candidates in a position to start to consider graduate school,” Bouffides says. “This is something we saw more than a decade ago with the recession: At least with full-time MBA programs, there is a sub-group of applicants who feel like they want to ride out tough and challenging economic times in the safety of an MBA program, with the hope that by the time they come out there will be plenty of opportunity. And that seems like a reasonable strategy for a fair number of people. So just the real or perceived threat of economic downturn made more people apply.”
Marshall’s relaxation of its requirement that applicants submit an entrance exam score also was a factor in the increase.
“We were a school that relaxed our standardized test requirement in April, which was pretty late in the cycle. We were in a position where we felt pretty good about where the cycle had been going, we were on pace to hit all of our targets, and then this just opened up a large window for a lot of people who would prefer not to take a test. The irony, though, is that post-April, it became more difficult to be admitted, not less, because of that flexibility, just because there were so many more applicants coming in.”
FOREIGN STUDENT ENROLLMENT COLLAPSE: A 1-YEAR BLIP?
Marshall enrolled its MBA Class of 2022 without any sacrifice in average GMAT score (see table above), and maintained excellence in myriad other ways. But not all was rosy. Coronavirus prompted the school to issue deferrals to international students on an unprecedented scale — the school granted 41 — and the result was a cratering of international enrollment, down to 12% from 32% last year. Relatedly, with so many more admits but so many deferrals and a class about the same size as in previous years, Marshall’s yield dropped a lot — from the high 30% region to just over 28% this year.
Bouffides says there was no talk of increasing the class size for the full-time MBA, a move that normally requires years of planning.
“Frankly, when Covid hit, we were a little concerned that we would have a smaller class size,” he says. “When you start talking about changing class size — especially when you’re talking increasing it — for full-time MBA programs that have cohort-based systems, that’s a pretty big step, and it has all sorts of implications for faculty load and resources. And in a time when we weren’t sure what the format and the model of the education would be, I think it would have been really complicated to make that kind of a move.”
Bouffides says while unfortunate and unusual, he expects this year’s drop-off in foreign enrollment to be an anomaly.
“We typically are not a school that offers deferrals,” he says. “It’s extraordinarily rare that we would have done that the past few years. But this year, especially early on when it became clear that consulates were closed and people could not get visas, that became an important piece of it. Things changed over time, and there are certainly international students who are currently in the first year of the program — a few in the United States, but most of them outside of the country taking classes online. But I think it was a reasonable thing to do; my guess is we will revert back to not offering many deferrals going forward.
“It was a huge drop for us to be only at 12% internationals — usually they’re about a third of the class. I totally expect that we will bounce right back to that in this next entering class.”
ANOTHER REASON FOR MORE APPS TO MARSHALL: STEM
There were few big surprises in the composition of the MBA Class of 2022, with about a quarter of the students (24%) coming from financial services industries and technology (15%), consulting (12%), media/entertainment (11%), and healthcare (6%) making up most of the rest. About a third majored in business/commerce in undergrad, with another 16% holding social sciences degrees and 13% each from economics and humanities. Some 11% have engineering/computer science degrees.
Bouffides points to the full-time MBA becoming STEM-certified this year, which appealed specifically to those with a science background and was another factor contributing to the record app volume, “all of a sudden causing an increase in applications, especially from the international community.” It’s one major reason — the transient effect of a pandemic that must end some day being another — that gives Bouffides confidence in the future.
“We’ve shown a lot of progress in the last few years in a lot of different ways,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with the strength and the quality of the incoming classes, being the first major school to hit gender parity, and then a large part is related to the excellent job that our graduate career services have done. So that kind of momentum naturally creates a situation where we become increasingly attractive to a broader pool of applicants.”