This time last year, the world was bracing for a winter disrupted by Covid-19, and business schools were beginning a year of teaching to students who knew that their MBA experience would be mostly online. At Poets&Quants, we wrote about some of the participants in MBA and other business master’s programs who made huge sacrifices to get to their campuses. One Chinese student donned protective gear for a flight from Shanghai to Paris; another was forced to conduct his admission interview from a hostel in Myanmar where he was stuck, unable to return home. Yet another flew to Europe despite suffering post-traumatic stress after being caught up in the August 2020 Beirut port explosion.
The challenges with the shift to online have been obvious: face-to-face bonding was impossible, networking was curtailed, and study trips were cancelled. Yet many students carried on. Some had already given up their jobs and had no choice. Some were keen to ditch jobs which had become too stressful during Covid; as one told us last year: “Doing my MBA remotely is shit, but my job would have been shittier.” And others decided that the quality of an MBA would not be degraded by online delivery. Many had no choice because their schools were extremely resistant to deferment.
But for some students who were due to begin their time at B-school last fall, the best course of action was to postpone. And some schools were amenable to the idea.
FROM THE SCHOOLS’ PERSPECTIVE
At French school HEC Paris an incredible 44% of participants on the newly-started MBA cohort deferred from previous years. Andrea Masini, associate dean of the MBA program at HEC, explains: “Students really appreciated the fact that we were allowing them to defer during the most difficult times of the pandemic. Many of our competitors were not allowing this but we wanted the talented people who wanted to join our program to be able to join us when the time was right.” HEC had so many deferrals that the Class of 2023 is expected to be around 370, much larger than the 285 students in the Class of 2022.
At Cambridge University’s Judge Business School 28% of the incoming class are deferred, a big increase on the usual figure of 10-13%. Barcelona-based IESE has also seen an increase in deferrals, albeit much less dramatic than at HEC and Judge. The class beginning in Fall 2021 has 22 people who deferred from last year, which accounts for 6% of the class. That´s much higher than normal, when there are only “a handful of deferrals”. “The reason for the rise is that we have been much more accommodating with deferrals in light of the pandemic´s impact on both financials and the health of candidates,” explains the school.
London Business School proved reluctant to grant many deferrals, saying that in the new class the number of deferrals is “relatively small”, albeit slightly higher than the usual figure of less than 10%. As they explain: “We don’t, in general, grant a large number of deferrals as we take time when building a class to ensure it is well-balanced and reflects a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds.”
INSEAD, located in Fontainebleau, about 70 kilometers southeast of Paris, said that less than 1% of the incoming MBA class are deferrals, in line with previous years. The intake of January 2021 did have a higher number, as the school accepted that those who were “not comfortable with the idea of undertaking studies at a difficult and uncertain time” should defer. Now, however, INSEAD has defaulted to its usual position that it prefers students to enroll in the class to which they have applied, because “the admissions committee gradually craft the class by carefully selecting unique individuals who will make the MBA experience unforgettable. Deferring individuals could potentially affect the class composition, diversity and wealth of perspectives.”
Factors such as ensuring balanced cohorts play a role in the decision to decline deferrals, but many suspect that another factor was also at play: that some schools were more able than others to absorb the blow of receiving fees a year late.
‘YOU EXPECT TO BE WITH EXCEPTIONAL PEERS’
So what has the experience been like for those who deferred? Divya Dewan is from Gurgaon in India, where she was working for Veris, a SaaS automation start-up. She began thinking about taking an MBA two years ago following a promotion which made her realize that she wanted to sharpen her management skills and to make the “triple jump” of changing role, sector and geography. She was attracted to Cambridge Judge because she wants to start a business in the future, and there is a strong start-up scene there, especially for female founders. Also, the legacy of the university appealed.
There were, she says, three reasons why she wanted to defer. “One was, I think, fairly universal which is the experiential factor,” she says. “You have an MBA expecting to be with exceptional peers, so that you share exchange ideas, maybe create a few paradigm shifting ones if you’re lucky. The thought of sitting in a dorm room locked up with my laptop — that just did not have the same appeal for me and also did not make it worthwhile for me to make the financial and emotional and intellectual investment.”
The second reason was the “fear factor,” Divya says. “I think that an MBA already puts you in an uncomfortable and uncertain space and last year we knew a lot less about Covid and I knew I would be scared of being with a peer who might have it, I knew that I could not be fully present if I was scared.” The third reason was financial constraint. “A few funding sources of mine got locked up because of Covid, and in the process of applying for the MBA I didn’t have time to apply for scholarships, she says.” In the last year, Divya was able to win a Forte Fellowship, which pays for almost 60% of her course fees and has made the MBA financially viable.
Deferring also helped with the networking element of the MBA because those who deferred connected online.
“A big chunk of us deferred, which also sort of makes it nice because we have known each other a lot longer,” says Divya. “The ones in India, we’ve even met up. I was constantly in touch with my three or four peers in, so I felt like I have already experienced a year with them. I don’t think I wasted the last year, I think that I have benefitted from it.”
‘FOR ME, THE CAMPUS EXPERIENCE WAS IMPORTANT’
Another student who deferred was John-Louis Voorheis, one of the large continent of deferees at HEC. After working in Chicago and New York for a tech start-up creating captioning for live streaming, he applied and was accepted to HEC because he wanted a program with more internationalism than he felt a US one would offer. It was March of 2020 and he was all set to start his MBA in the Fall when New York closed down. “The movers were booked, storage was sorted, but it became clear that it was turning out to be more serious than anyone expected, so I wrote to HEC asking to defer, and they were very accommodating,” he explains. They even agreed to keep his tuition at the original rate. “They handled it with graciousness, and gave me emotional support,” John adds.
In some ways, the decision to defer was easier than it might have been for others. “I had already started to connect with people in my cohort though a WhatsApp group. But I hadn’t yet resigned and there was tremendous demand for our services. I thought I could either go to HEC and do an online MBA, or I could stay in a stable job and help people who are dealing with the pandemic,” he says, adding that now he is on campus, he sometimes bumps into people from that original cohort, giving him even more networking opportunities.
Also, given that he is hoping to use the MBA as a springboard for a significant career change, moving into venture capital or a tech accelerator, he decided that the networking and face-to-face experience would be vital, and that for him the online version of an MBA would not help him achieve his goals. “I don’t think that going online takes away from the prestige of an MBA at somewhere like HEC, or even the learning experience really, but for me the campus experience was important,” he adds.
John appreciated HEC’s attitude so much that when he read a story at Poets&Quants about a student who was having trouble getting a US school to grant him a deferral, he contacted that student and recommended he try HEC. The student took his advice, was accepted, and the two have planned to meet up on campus. Good things, it appears, come to those who wait.