The headline blared: “MBA Applications At Some Of The Country’s Best Colleges Fell This Year.”
The story began: “Some of the best-known MBA programs in the U.S. registered precipitous drops or sluggish interest from prospective candidates this year, following a 2020 admissions cycle in which applications soared.”
But The Wall Street Journal‘s story that ran on Monday, September 20 is misleading at best. That’s clear from the data. But it’s also essential to consider the context.
CONTEXT IS KEY
Along with our annual reports on Class of 2023 profiles at several leading MBA programs (see the most recent here and here), Poets&Quants has reviewed the 2020-2021 application data by comparing peer schools with each and comparing historical data. At the 15 top-25 schools for which we have data, only Northwestern Kellogg School of Management (-20.3%) and Columbia Business School (-6.3%) saw declines. For the other 13 schools, apps were up — and in some cases, up big. Michigan Ross School of Business received a record 4,003 apps, a 56% increase from the year before. Duke Fuqua School of Business saw a 12.1%, increase, one of six top-25 schools with double-digit growth. MIT Sloan School of Management saw 12% growth. Yale School of Management was up 12.3%. Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management was up 12.4%. Dartmouth Tuck School of Business was up 11%.
The 13 schools with increases had a total of more than 5,000 additional applications this year over last year. The average increase was more than 380 more applications, just shy of 12%.
In other words, the headline on that Wall Street Journal story could have more accurately been "MBA Applications At Most Top Business Schools Are Up Again."
WSJ's story provides some context, its author, Patrick Thomas, asserts on LinkedIn, saying that they "do our best to address the many factors that contribute to the mix of results from schools. We also note that the strong economy and labor market could suppress applications this next cycle as well." WSJ does mention the increases at NYU Stern School of Business (8.4%) and Duke Fuqua. But they downplay those increases, ignore Michigan's stratospheric increase, and neglect to mention that top schools like Stanford Graduate School of Business and Chicago Booth School of Business haven't even published their class profiles yet.
The biggest problem is that the story is behind a paywall. Most people don't subscribe to the WSJ, so they read the headline, the deck and the first two sentences and that is the message they get.
'UNUSUALLY HIGH NUMBER OF APPS IN 2020'
In any case, it's a mistake to extrapolate industry-wide portent from Kellogg's 20% drop in apps — because 2020 was an incomparable, anomalous cycle. March and April 2020 were a chaotic and deeply uncertain time. Many B-schools temporarily lifted their testing requirements to help calm the waters. Kellogg was the first M7 school to do so, even waiving requirements for such language tests as TOEFL or IELTS. Then it went further, making waves by allowing candidates rejected in earlier rounds to come back and apply for reconsideration in the same admissions cycle. The school also extended its app deadlines, expanding its round 3 by nearly two months.
The combination of strategies under first-year Dean Francesca Cornelli resulted in a Class of 2022 that was 85 people, or 18%, larger than the Class of 2021, and erased losses that included a 15.5% drop in apps between the prior two admissions cycles. Overall, the school received the most-ever applications for one cycle, 5,813, a 54% jump from the prior year.
This year, as the school returned to more conventional admissions policies, applications naturally dropped. The decline was about 20% from that record high — but still higher than any Kellogg admissions cycle since 2014. It was 22.6% higher than the last "normal" cycle in 2019. Is that — combined with the slight 6% decline at Columbia Business School, the only other top-25 school that has yet reported an app decline — a sign of the death of the MBA, as the WSJ suggests? Hardly.
Emily Haydon, interim assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at Kellogg, writes to P&Q: "Kellogg’s 2021 application volume was 4,632, at the highest level it’s been since 2014, the first year of data in our current admissions system and database, barring 2020 when, during the first few months of COVID-19 when:
- The GMAT/GRE was made optional;
- The school extended its application deadline by two months.
"These decisions, driven by empathy for potential applicants during a global pandemic, resulted in an unusually high number of applications in the 2020 cycle."
CONSULTANTS 'DROWNING IN WORK'
Admissions consultants are taking a nuanced view. Barbara Coward, founder of MBA 360 Admissions, writes on LinkedIn that schools reporting higher and higher GMAT averages may actually depress application volume by intimidating prospective applicants. "By far, the most popular question I get from prospective MBA students is whether I think they have a chance of getting in," Coward writes. "The higher and higher GMAT scores are impressive, but are they intimidating prospective students who prefer to stick with the safety of the status quo. Are we leaving populations behind because they feel they don't belong?
"Let's enable more people to see more of themselves at these prestigious institutions. I have a feeling that would do a lot for application volume."
But others are dubious about the WSJ's assertion of a decline. Candy Lee Laballe, founder of Madrid-based LaBalle Admissions, says she's seen no evidence of a downturn — just the opposite. "Hard to believe numbers are down as myself, and everyone I know in this gig, have been drowning in work since the Class of 2023," LaBalle tells P&Q. In fact, one leading business school with an early decision deadline saw its apps soar this month by more than 40%.
Paul Bodine, founder and president of Admitify, is looking at the big picture. He says he had lower expectations to begin with for the last cycle after the boom in apps from the 2019-2020 season.
"As John Byrne and multiple admissions directors have noted, the expectation was for a so-so year this cycle in terms of applicant volume, because Covid is still rampaging in many parts of the world," Bodine tells P&Q. "The expectation was that pent-up demand would explode next year (2022-23 cycle). That sounded plausible to me a few months ago but now I’m not so sure: the Delta variant and the unexpectedly high number of non-vaxxers, combined with the hot labor market and the still slow pace of vaccinations in many parts of the world, suggest to me that we may not return to ‘normal’ applicant volumes until 2023-24.
"But I disagree with doomsayers who say that applicant volume at the elite/top 10 schools will never recover. I still think the ROI and ‘network effects’ of a top 10 MBA remains compelling. Geopolitical factors such as declining applications from China may suppress international applicant volume in the short-term, but long-term I see applicant volume at top MBA programs reverting to the historical trend lines."
'WE NEED TO SEE NUMBERS FROM THE CLASS OF 2024'
Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, says WSJ jumped the gun on declaring an MBA application downturn.
"I call out cherry-picking!" she says. "I think it is too early to tell about long-term trends from the class of 2023. I know it doesn’t make headlines to say that things are normalizing, but they are. We see fits and starts based on whether a test is required. But one cycle to the next — even one round to the next — doesn’t give us real evidence. Isn’t that what business schools are trying to teach? Evidence-based analysis?
"We need to at least see numbers from the application numbers from the Class of 2024 to make broad statements.
As for comments flying around the Internet about the value of an MBA — some make sense: the monetary price tag is high and getting higher, and the opportunity cost can be significant. Specialized master's programs are adding to the population of graduate students and cannibalizing traditional two-year programs. But 2024 was never going to be a blowout year. That just never added up.”