To MBA students who favor schools with smaller cohorts, the draw is less about being a big fish in a small pond than seeking a more intimate learning environment. Even during the pandemic, when many classes were virtual, students in schools with smaller intakes say their experience allowed them to know classmates and faculty as family.
“I’ve still been able to get to know the majority of my classmates and professors,” says Jamie Rosenstein Wittman, who is one of just 182 students who completed the first year of the MBA program at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. She enrolled at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., partly because of the school’s mission to deliver a business education with what it calls “personal scale.” “Both the students and faculty care deeply about learning from one another and building a strong community.”
In MBA programs as in many things in life, size can really matter. It’s why Harvard Business School, traditionally the U.S. business school that enrolls the most MBA students in any year, carves up its 930 or so cohorts into sections of 90 students each. Smaller MBA classes promote close-knit communities, along with a deeper sense of collaboration. They emphasize quality interactions over quantity.
THE ADVANTAGES & DISADVANTAGES OF BIG VS. SMALL
“I came to business school to form new life-long relationships with people with different backgrounds from myself,” says Nimi Ajayi, an MBA classmate of Wittman at Vanderbilt. “I needed to attend a program where I stood a chance to make my way around getting to know every person in the program before I completed business school.”
Of course, business schools that enroll hundreds upon hundreds of incoming MBAs are more likely to stress the larger networks they provide, along with a wider diversity of knowledge and experiences from a greater number of classmates. Ultimately, it’s a question of fit. As an applicant, would you be more comfortable in a smaller environment or a larger one? There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
Last year’s entering full-time MBA classes at the top 30 business schools in Poets&Quants‘ 2020-21 ranking show a wide range of cohort sizes, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which enrolled its largest MBA class ever at 916 students to Georgia Tech’s tiny intake of just 66 MBAs.
THE IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC ON CLASS SIZE
The pandemic had a definite impact on class size. Harvard Business School welcomed just 732 students, roughly 200 fewer MBA candidates than a more typical incoming class. A year-earlier, HBS enrolled 938 MBA 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.
Harvard’s more generous deferral policy allowed Wharton, which saw a 21% in MBA applicants, to move into first place in terms of class size. That 21% translated into an increase of more than 1,200 applicants from the year-earlier total of 5,905. The increase in application volume led to an entering class size of 916 students, up 7% from the 856 who enrolled in the class that entered the school last fall.
Columbia Business School also moved ahead of Harvard last year, enrolling a total of 782 full-time MBAs. Columbia’s Class of 2022 is composed of 571 students who entered last August and 211 who matriculated in its January cohort. Just as Harvard divides its class into sections, Columbia carves up its 782 students into 11 clusters of about 70 students each.
HARVARD COULD MOVE AHEAD OF INSEAD IN ENROLLING THE WORLD’S LARGEST FULL-TIME MBA CLASS
This fall, HBS will regain its number one position, perhaps even overtaking INSEAD which enrolls slightly more than 1,000 MBA students each year. That’s because Harvard plans to enlarge its intake this year to roughly 1,000 students to provide space for admitted students who deferred their admission in 2020.
Among the highest ranked 30 MBA programs in the U.S., the median is just over 300 students (at New York University’s Stern School of Business which enrolled 317 students into its two-year, full-time MBA experience. Only three schools in the Top 30 matriculate full-time classes of fewer than 100 students: Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, with 92 students; Washington University’s Olin Business School, with 90 students, and Georgia Tech’s Scheller School of Business, with a mere 66 student intake.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of choice. Eric Johnson, the dean of Vanderbilt’s Owen School, equates the size of his MBA cohort with Steinway & Sons, the maker of the world’s best pianos. “At Steinway, they’ll bring the very best lumber from all over the world,” he says. “They’ll go through this very long process—it takes them two years actually, kind of like getting an MBA,” Johnson told a group of incoming students in June. “But their whole thing is this personal scale; they’re going to take that wood and they’re going to make the very best piano that they can.”
As a professor, Johnson has written a pair of case studies on Steinway, focusing in part on the company’s “intense focus on detail and personalization” as the key to its success. “At Owen,” he adds, “we still have the luxury of working at this personal scale, and it’s that scale where I think real transformation occurs—a breakthrough kind of scale.”