What a year it was for MBA admissions, especially at business schools in the United States, where coronavirus has never been contained long enough to consider a return to normal operations. In difficult and unforeseen circumstances, B-school admissions departments in the U.S. put their heads down and charged into the fray, working nights and weekends through the summer to process the wave of late applications that resulted from expanded admissions rounds and relaxed testing requirements.
A huge influx of MBA applications resulted from those twin strategies, leading many schools to crack their gates open a little wider by admitting more students — in part because of a fear of international deferments and in part because of increased capacity in a virtual environment. The added admit load, however, begs the question: Did coronavirus lead to higher acceptance rates at the top U.S. B-schools?
The answer is … yes and no. A Poets&Quants analysis of admissions data from the top 25 ranked U.S. B-schools found that half the schools saw increases in MBA acceptance rate, while half did not. One school, Harvard Business School, had the same rate this year as last — 12%. Of the schools that saw their rates go up, the average increase was 4.4%; of the schools that went down, the average was 3.7%. Of course, within those averages were some huge swings: Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business led all schools with a 14.1-percentage-point drop, from 41.5% to 27.4%, lower than its level in 2017 before two cycles of increases. On the other end, Michigan Ross’s bad year for apps was responsible for a 6-point swing upward, possibly the highest of any school, though MIT Sloan School of Management had an estimated increase of 10.5 points (based on an estimated 2019 acceptance rate of 11.5%), to 22%.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
It’s always instructive to see what’s up at the elite schools. The top 10 — HBS, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, MIT Sloan, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, Columbia Business School, UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, and Yale School of Management — had a good year, overall, with applications reversing a two-year slump and admits and class sizes bigger than ever. (See table above.) We know, however, that the picture was a little murkier at HBS and Stanford, the two highest-profile schools not to extend their admissions rounds in the spring; see our coverage of their fall MBA cohorts, respectively, here and here.
Overall in the top 10, six schools saw acceptance rate increases, and three saw decreases. Acceptance rate for the 10 schools climbed to 21.2% from 17.5%, an increase of more than 21% in one year and up more than 46% from five years ago. Applications returned to their 2017 levels, gaining about 14% from last year, and admits were way up year-over-year, to 10,864 from 8,783, nearly 24% in one year and nearly 37% in five years. Meanwhile, led by UC-Berkeley Haas, which increased its class size 17% in accordance with its increased virtual capacity, the top 10 schools upped MBA enrollment this fall by 1.1%, or 62 additional seats. The 5,500 total enrollees represent a 7.8% increase since the incoming Class of 2018. Only Harvard lowered its class size, a move that will be reversed next fall when many of its deferees finally arrive in Cambridge.
A big dark spot for the elites: yield, which fell precipitously to 51.9% from 61.9%, a 16.2% decline in one year. Since 2016, yield at the top 10 is down over 19%.
‘A VERY TURBULENT APPLICATION CYCLE’
Across the top 25, yield was down at 22 schools, with the biggest drop coming at MIT: from 69.5% to 34.7%. The biggest increase was at Rice, which saw its success rate rise from 45.9% to 49.3%. Overall, only two schools — the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business and Indiana University Kelley School of Business — admitted fewer MBA students, and 16 of 25 enrolled more than the previous year.
It was a banner year, in many ways, for the top U.S. schools, says Linda Abraham, founder of Accepted.com.
“In rounds 1 and 2 of the 2019-2020 application cycle, schools were surfing in too-calm waters, treading water, and desperately hoping for a swell that didn’t come. Then Covid hit,” Abraham says. “In March, most U.S. schools feared that they would lose significant portions of their classes because accepted students would not be able to travel to campus. They further worried that both domestic and international admitted students would decline to attend because they didn’t want a hybrid or zoom MBA experience.
“However, by April, most schools began recruiting heavily late-round and Covid-round applicants, testing became available online, the recession hit, and applicants realized that their chances of acceptance may be better last cycle than this cycle, an unexpected number decided to apply. MBA programs had more than a swell. Suddenly they were riding a fantastic wave of late-round applications that has turned into a harbinger of application volume in 2020-21, or at least round 1. Schools like Kellogg, Ross, CBS, Darden, and Rice kept recruiting and extending and in some cases waiving or easing test requirements. They have been better able to maintain their stats which are usually cited as a reflection of class quality.
“In contrast, the schools that either didn’t extend or only extended minimally, like Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, largely missed the wave. HBS had its class shrink by over 200 students, Wharton saw a drop in its GMAT score of 10 points, and Stanford’s application volume actually went down by a smidgen (.2%).
“For 2019-20, which just ended, flexibility and vigorous recruiting enabled many programs to grow and thrive in a very turbulent application cycle.”
See the next page for all the admissions data on the top 25 U.S. MBA programs.