Joe Biden’s election this month foretells a resurgence in international applications to U.S. MBA programsIt wasn’t just coronavirus. It was politics, too.
International enrollment has been declining at business schools in the United States for the last four years, essentially since the election of Donald Trump, who explicitly proposed the rejection of wide swaths of immigrant populations. Trump espoused and implemented policies that both restricted visas for MBAs and other university graduates and deterred others from even considering an MBA at a U.S. school. Deans and others at the leading schools saw Trump’s actions for what they were: deeply deleterious to schools’ mission to educate a diverse and talented pool of future business leaders, and badly injurious to their bottom line, since internationals historically have made up one-third or more of any given MBA cohort.
How bad was it? In Poets&Quants‘ annual story on the levels of international enrollment at the top 50 schools — published in March and based on numbers reported before the pandemic — we reported that since 2017, 31 schools in the top 52 saw declines in their foreign MBA student ranks, 21 by double digits. The average loss was 4.5 percentage points and 16.6%, including 3.5 points and 10.9% among 16 schools in the top 25. Seventeen schools saw increases, with an average gain of 5 percentage points and 17.7%. The Graduate Management Admission Council, meanwhile, reported that international enrollment in U.S. B-schools declined 13.7% in 2019; according to GMAC, which administers the main MBA admissions test worldwide, the percentage of international candidates who said the U.S. was their preferred destination dropped from 44% in 2017 to 37% in the first half of 2019. All this despite every one of the top-25 schools (and many others) designating their MBAs as Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs to helps graduates qualify for longer work stays in the U.S. Even as the global health crisis sparked a counter-cyclical boom in overall apps in 2020, international numbers worsened still more at many schools as travel restrictions compelled admits to petition for deferrals, which schools were disposed to liberally grant.
Speculation about the impact of Joe Biden’s election on international enrollment in U.S. B-schools runs along one major theme: He will make it better. We asked some of the top admissions consultants whether that view has merit, and their answers can be summed up in one syllable: Duh.
“Not to sound flippant, but I think it’s obvious that the global perception of Biden is that he will be more welcoming to foreigners,” says Alex Min of The MBA Exchange, “so I actually don’t think that it’s speculative to think more internationals will be encouraged to apply to top-tier U.S. business schools than under the current administration.”
HOW TRUMP AND BIDEN DIFFER ON H-1B VISAS & SKILLED IMMIGRATION
In a story out this week, Bloomberg Businessweek writes that according to its Best B-Schools analysis of top 20 U.S. schools, foreign students make up 29.5% of the class at elite schools this fall, down from 34.9% two years ago. Bloomberg also cites the 2019 Open Doors report by the U.S. Department of State and the Institute of International Education, which reported a 1.8% decline in students from abroad in all U.S. universities, with B-schools bearing the brunt of the slump.
What did Donald Trump do, exactly, that troubled so many in graduate business education? Dice Insights, an information service published by Dice.com, a website for technology careers, published a concise summary in October, about a week before the election: Trump squeezed shut the H-1B gateway, first whittling down the number granted of the main visa sought by international MBAs after graduation, and then, in June, suspending the program through the end of the year. Even as that ban was overturned this fall, Trump proposed further rules to curb immigration and deter foreign interest in coming to the U.S. His rhetoric against H-1B and the Optional Practical Training program that allowed for lengthier U.S. stays was consistently opposed and negative.
Biden is expected to reverse Trump’s actions on H-1B visas and open the door a bit on quotas for certain populations. On his campaign website, he offers this position on work-based immigration:
“(Biden) will increase the number of visas offered for permanent, work-based immigration based on macroeconomic conditions and exempt from any cap recent graduates of Ph.D. programs in STEM fields. And, he will support first reforming the temporary visa system for high-skill, specialty jobs to protect wages and workers, then expanding the number of visas offered and eliminating the limits on employment-based green cards by country …”
As Dice reports, on the campaign trail in July, Biden stated explicitly that he would lift the Trump administration’s temporary ban on H-1B visas. “(Trump) just ended H-1B visas the rest of this year. That will not be in my administration,” he told a digital town hall meeting.
B-schools widely see Biden as a breath of fresh air. Stacy Blackman of Stacy Blackman Consulting shares the sanguine outlook on the coming Biden presidency. “The quality of the U.S. educational system will be the biggest winner under the Biden presidency,” she tells P&Q. “The ‘Biden benefits’ will reverberate across the U.S. economy, which also gains significantly by global talent.”
In a pre-election poll, a quarter of international candidates for graduate business education told GMAC that they were more likely to pursue graduate management education in the U.S. if Biden was elected president, whereas 2 in 5 (43%) indicated that they were less likely to pursue a U.S. degree in the event of a Trump re-election. Only 14% said they were less likely to study in the U.S. if Biden were elected (14%).
Business school representatives themselves are reluctant to comment while the unknowns are still so plentiful — for one thing, Trump is still president until January 20, 2021. But admissions consultants have no such qualms.
“There has been no greater stress on the international MBA applicant pool than the recent years of uncertainty under Trump,” Blackman continues. “Under the Trump political administration, we witnessed harsh rhetoric and threats to radically erode our visas, H-1B and OPT systems. Even while U.S. colleges pushed back on the threats and some changes did not materialize, there was a chilling reality that pursuing a higher education and any subsequent career path in the U.S. had risks.
“At SBC in recent years, we were inspired by the relentless push among many of our international clients, despite the U.S. political issues, to forge ahead for the elite MBA programs. We have seen an even more impressive cohort of internationals from almost every global region apply for MBA programs. It seems the elite MBA programs attract those who truly believe in, ‘no risk, no reward.’ At the same time, there was a marked decrease in some specific cohorts of internationals, such as Indian nationals, many of whom shifted their MBA plans to Europe directly because of the U.S. political and immigration climate under Trump.
“There is no question that the Biden administration will reverse the recent anti-immigant systems and rhetoric, once the administration settles in and contends with urgent tasks that include Covid-19. This will give an enormous sense of relief to higher education applicants both domestic and international, as well as college institutions and educators, all of whom value an inclusive and global student class.
“But what is even more significant for internationals aspiring to come to the U.S. is that we finally see the end of Covid-19 in sight. It has now become clear that Biden will take charge at the tail end of the Covid-19 pandemic, with two highly-effective vaccines set to be released within weeks. It was the pandemic that was even more detrimental to internationals’ presence in higher education than the Trump policies. Across our client pool, it was Covid-19 that was top of mind much more so than any other pressure. It is now reasonable to expect that MBA programs should return to normalcy by fall 2021 as a result of the vaccine availability.
“The Biden administration will not only deliver relief from the immigration proposals but also vital leadership through the end of the pandemic. Both immigration and pandemic relief will result in a huge influx, especially as the economy starts to improve, among internationals of all backgrounds. The American dream will come alive again, and internationals will double down on U.S. education. It will be exciting to see the caliber and diversity of the MBA applicant pool grow through this next era, which should be the best that U.S. business programs have ever seen.”
KEY TO LEGISLATIVE CHANGE: U.S. SENATE CONTROL
Paul Bodine of Admitify says things are about to get better, no matter who is in the majority in the Senate, control of which will be determined by a pair of races in Georgia. “Even assuming a Republican Senate and Biden’s natural tendency to be (and be seen as) a centrist president, I’m sure we can expect a more welcoming climate for highly skilled immigrants and international business school applicants starting in January,” Bodine tells P&Q.
“As a candidate Biden explicitly vowed in July to revoke Trump’s June H-1B suspension: ‘That will not be in my administration.’ So look for the Biden administration to, as promised, ‘immediately’ rescind as many of Trump’s many self-defeating immigration-related executive orders (e.g., H-1B suspension, salary requirements) as it can in early 2021. Rolling back DHS regulations will be more complicated and take more time (requiring court proceedings and regulatory review/amendment processes), but that will also be attempted, I’m sure. Biden has told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the TechNet group of industry executives that that is what he’ll do.
“Any major immigration changes requiring congressional legislation will depend on the outcome of the Georgia Senate run-off elections, unfortunately. But even without Republican support, I think the new Biden regime will send a signal to international applicants that will start to offset the 13.7% decline in international applications to U.S. business schools that GMAC reported in 2019. But getting international applicants back to previous levels of risk appetite for U.S. study may take a few years and stronger indications that Trumpism is not America’s new normal. Don’t expect the H-1B status quo to return to the ‘golden years’ of the late 1990s anytime soon.”
OPTIMISM TEMPERED BY REALITY
Betsy Massar of Master Admissions says the international students she has spoken with are excited about the possibility of longer work stays in the U.S. “That’s always been the draw: to do the two years, but also get tremendous training at one of the great training companies, either in tech, consulting, or banking,” Massar tells P&Q. “That option is now more likely, given the Biden administration’s expected policies on immigration.
“Hearing from people all over, even from Canada, but more importantly from the Middle East, that they are more optimistic about job prospects later, with a potentially less cumbersome visa process.”
But she warns that coronavirus is not gone, and points to Harvard Business School and others that are now moving all instruction virtual once again amid a resurgence in the pandemic.
“Covid is a huge issue,” she says. “Will Biden be able to get the pandemic under control so students can come to class? People are still having trouble paying $250K for an online education. So if we can meet, greet, and get our normal university lives back, then yes, the floodgates will open. But not until that point is clear.”