If you’re looking to make the case that 2020 was the most disruptive year in the history of graduate business education, you will find a lot of data here to underline in bright red.
Disruption doesn’t even begin to describe the last year-plus for business schools, but the end result is that acceptance rates at the top schools in the United States climbed en masse, opening the door a bit wider for seekers of MBAs. This continues a long-term trend, making it hard to credit the coronavirus pandemic exclusively; however, class sizes also grew last year at more than half of the schools Poets&Quants examined, which for the most part was a direct response to the realities of the pandemic: With remote instruction, physical space limitations were no longer a concern at many schools, leading to the increase. Another clear effect of Covid was the collapse of yield, the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll, rather than choose another school — or, the likeliest scenario in the pandemic year of 2020, defer. Yield — a contentious issue for schools, many of which widely offered deferments that threw calculations for a loop — was down nearly across the board, including at all but one of the top 25 schools.
Two elite schools offer interesting illustrations of the different ways life in graduate business education underwent upheaval in 2020. Like many of its peers, MIT Sloan School of Management saw a massive increase in MBA applications during the pandemic and admitted nearly 1,395 candidates to its full-time MBA, 638 more than 2019, an 84% increase. This blew MIT’s acceptance rate up to an estimated 22%, doubling it from 2019. The school only enrolled 68 more students, however, a 16% increase; as a result its yield dropped precipitously, to about 35% from nearly 70% the previous year.
Harvard Business School’s strategy in confronting the unprecedented disruption of coronavirus is well-documented. The school disclosed in September that its newest crop of MBAs would be composed of just 732 students, roughly 200 fewer MBA candidates than a more typical incoming class. The previous year’s cohort totaled 938 students. The shortfall occurred after HBS gave all Class of 2022 admitted students the option to defer their enrollment for a year or two and decided against pulling more of its applicants from an enlarged waitlist — and came with the caveat that HBS expects to grow its next two classes to 1,000 or more students. Altogether the effect of these decisions was to drive HBS’ acceptance rate down into Stanford territory while it only lost a bit off its yield. At 85%, HBS had the highest yield in 2020 of any school we looked at.
YIELDING TO REALITY
As the table above illustrates, the overall acceptance rate at the top 10 schools as ranked by P&Q — Stanford GSB, HBS, Wharton, etc. — has been rising steadily for the past five years. Since 2016, the rate has gone up more than 50%; in the last year, given a little extra push by Covid-19, it jumped 13%, to an average of 22.3%. Meanwhile, applications — which had been declining — rebounded in a big way to 57,187 total, approaching the high water mark of 2017. Admits and enrollees are both at their highest point.
Then there’s yield. The effect of the pandemic on whether admits actually chose to enroll is dramatically illustrated in that one data point above: 50.2%, down 19% in just one year. What we found, though, is what we expected to find — only more so: that every school saw some admission attrition and suffered drops in yield. It wasn’t just an elite problem. In 2019, 37 of 50 schools saw yield declines; but in 2020 it was 45 out of 52, including 24 of the top 25 schools. The average decline in that latter group was significant: 9.3 percentage points. (See the last page of this article for school-by-school yield data.) What was the only top-25 school to avoid a drop in yield in the pandemic year of 2020? Columbia Business School, which grew its yield 2 percentage points to 69.2%, third-best out of 52 schools examined by P&Q. (The other four schools to avoid yield loss were Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, Texas A&M Mays Business School, UC-Irvine Merage School of Business, and UC-Davis Graduate Business School.)
Calculating yield is tricky in a pandemic year, because we don’t know whether schools included deferments in their admit totals. Consequently we don’t know the veracity in Harvard Business School reporting the highest yield in 2020, at 85.2%, nor for that matter that of those that followed: Brigham Young University Marriott School of Business (76.3%) and Columbia (69.2%). Stanford, in a message to P&Q after this story was published, insisted its calculated yield of 67%, based on U.S. News publishing that the school had 651 admits and 436 enrollees, was “wildly off.” We added an asterisk to the admit number. Stanford later asked us to add that the estimate we used is “not representative of fall 2020 yield as it does not account for students who accepted and deferred matriculation through our deferred enrollment pathway for college seniors and graduate students, or for those pursuing a joint/dual degree. We also granted deferrals to those unable to secure a student visa and for Covid-related reasons.” The school declined, however, to provide its yield number.
Overall, what we know from the available data is that 10 schools out of 52 reported yields of 50% or more; the lowest yield in the top 10 was Yale SOM’s 34.1%, and the lowest outside it was Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business’ 24.6%. CMU Tepper was one of just six schools with yields below 30%. The school with the biggest increase: Texas A&M, which gained more than 9 percentage points to 49.1%; and the biggest drop: MIT Sloan, whose circumstances were described above.
GETTING IN IS GETTING EASIER
In acceptance rates, we have enough data from years past to do different interesting comparisons. In a three-year window, from 2018 to 2020, we find that 40 of the top 52 U.S. programs — including 21 of the top 25 — have seen their acceptance rates increase, that is, have cracked the door further ajar and admitted more applicants. Just nine schools (and five in the top 25) saw their rates decline in that span. Narrowing the scope, between 2019 and 2020, 27 of 52 schools saw acceptance rate growth, while 23 — including 10 of the top 25 schools — saw rate contraction. All this data is included on the following pages.
Where were the biggest increases and declines? Over three cycles, MIT Sloan had the biggest increase, of 9.8 points (81% increase, to 21.9%), followed by the University of Maryland Smith School of Business (9.8 points, 27.2% to 45.8%), Yale SOM (9.7 points, 48.5% to 29.7%), Emory University Goizueta Business School (9.1 points, 24.6% to 46.1%), and the University of Florida Warrington College of Business (7.8 points, 41.5% to 26.6%). The biggest drop-offs in those three years came at Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management, which shaved 14.7 points and 24.1% off its accept rate, down to 46.3%, followed by BYU Marriott (9.7 points, 18.4% to 42.9%), the University of Rochester Simon Business School (8.4 points, 25.5% to 24.5%), CMU Tepper (7.3 points, 20.9% to 27.7%), and UC-Irvine Merage (7 points, 25.6% to 20.3%). Overall between 2018 and 2020, 29 schools saw their acceptance rates grow.
In the year between 2019 and 2020, 14 schools saw their rates go up, led by UCLA Anderson School of Management, which grew 8.4 points or 32.2% to 34.4%, followed by Maryland Smith (7.5 points, 19.6%), the University of Michigan Ross School of Business (6 points, 19.4% to 37%), the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management (5.9 points, 12.3% to 53.8%), and UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business (5.6 points, 31.6% to 23.3%). The biggest year-to-year declines were at Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business, which narrowed its acceptance rate by 15 points or 29.5% to 35.9%, followed by SMU Tepper (13.8 points, 33.3%), Vanderbilt Owen (12.4 points, 21.1%), and Michigan State University Broad College of Business (12 points, 20.3% to 47%).
The lowest acceptance rate overall remains Stanford GSB’s, which grew this year to 8.9%. The lowest rate outside the top 10 can be found at Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business, which reported that 20.1% of applicants are admitted. UC-Irvine Merage was close behind at 20.3%. The highest acceptance rate in the top 10 belongs to Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business (34.8%), and the highest in the top 25 is at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business (56.9%), with UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (52.5%) close behind. Georgetown’s rate was also the highest overall in the top 50, with other notably high rates at Minnesota Carlson (53.8%) and Boston University Questrom School of Business (51.3%).
In all, 22 schools out of 52 have an acceptance rate of 40% or more, including five schools in the top 25. Conversely, 18 schools — and 13 in the top 25 — have rates below 30%.
And then there’s enrollment. Many schools saw the pandemic, which we hope soon to be able to stop writing about, as an opportunity to increase class sizes without needing additional infrastructure to house and feed their new students. Twenty-eight schools out of 52 increased their class sizes from 2019, while 21 decreased them, including 10 schools in the top 25. One school, Minnesota Carlson, had the exact same number of students in both years: 74. See the second-to-last page in this article for enrollment data.
UNC Kenan-Flagler was up the biggest, with a boost of 92 seats to 344, a 36.5% increase. Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management increased its cohort size by 85, to 559, a nearly 18% increase; while Rice Jones jumped its MBA Class of 2022 by 73 students, or 68%, to 180. And the biggest decreases? Well, we know all about what happened there.
Data, data, data — see the next pages for complete tables on acceptance rates, yield, admits, enrollment & more at 52 of the top U.S. business schools.