The number of GMAT tests taken in the U.S. plunged to a new low, falling to just 38,509 in testing year 2021. That number includes test takers who sat for the exam multiple times in a year when many business schools were experiencing a boom in applications for their MBA programs.
Last year’s GMAT test volume represents a 47.7% decline from the pre-pandemic testing year of 2018 when 73,556 exams were administered in the U.S. But even that drop-off fails to capture the full extent of the collapse. Just how dramatic the falloff has been can seen by comparing the latest number for the year ended July of 2021 with GMAT’s record high volumes in 2012. In that year, 117,511 tests were taken in the U.S., more than three times this past year’s total. Every year since 2012, volume in the U.S. has fallen with only one exception, 2016, when exams inched up by little more than 600 tests.
The worldwide picture is somewhat better but not anything that would be cause for celebration by the officials at the Graduate Management Admission Council, the maker of the GMAT. In testing year 2021, 156,453 tests were taken all over the world, down 10% from the 173,179 tests administered in the previous year. From the pre-pandemic year of 2018, tests worldwide have fallen by 35.5%. From the peak testing year of 2012, when a record 286,529 GMAT tests were taken, the decline is a whopping 45.4%.
GMAT TEST TAKING VOLUME IS NO LONGER A LEADING INDICATOR OF APPLICATION FLOWS
What's going on? For years, admission officials would look to GMAT test volume data to predict application flows. But through the pandemic, that correlation has been broken, in part due to the gains by rival test GRE from Educational Testing Service. At some prominent schools, students admitted on a GRE score now represent more than a third of the incoming class. That is true at Yale, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Michigan, Duke, and Notre Dame. At several other business schools, including Georgetown, Washington University, Ohio State, and Pittsburgh, the GRE has become the dominant test, taken by more than half of all recently enrolled students. This past year, Harvard Business School enrolled a new record percentage of GRE test takers, 29% of the Class of 2023, more than double the 12% only three years earlier. At Stanford, one in four of the MBA students admitted last fall got in with a GRE.
Truth is, more admissions officers than ever before do not have a preference for one exam over the other. In a 2020 survey of nearly 100 business school admissions officers by Kaplan, the test prep company, 86% of the business school officials said applicants have no admissions edge with the GMAT. Just 13% believe GMAT takers have an advantage, while 1% said that GRE takers are preferred. "A few years before that, the GMAT held a more significant edge," says Russell Schaffer, Kaplan's senior communications manager. "We didn't ask this particular question in 2021 simply because the testing landscape has changed so much with so many MBA programs suspending the GMAT/GRE/EA requirement altogether."
While GMAT test volume was once a leading indicator of forthcoming MBA application volume, that is also no longer true because so many business schools, as Schaffer notes, have gone test-optional or now accept a wider variety of standardized tests including those for law and medical schools. Still, more admission officers are willing to grant test waivers to qualified candidates who through other parts of the application can prove that they deserve admission. The University of Virginia's Darden School of Business will even accept the Executive Assessment (EA), MCAT or the LSAT or none at all. The school believes that a standardized is just one piece of information in a much broader, holistic evaluation.
No less crucial, the explosion in online degree programs in business has not helped. The vast majority of these programs do not require a GMAT or GRE for admission, and some of them make clear that they believe the test reflects racial disparity and perpetuates inequity. So the GMAT and the GRE are not fully sharing in the growth of what is the fastest growing sector of graduate management education.
'A PANDEMIC INDUCED REDUCTION IN TEST TAKING VOLUME'
Sangeet Chowfla, the president and CEO of GMAC, attributes the decline of GMAT testing in North America to a confluence of events, including what he calls "a pandemic induced reduction in test taking volume that created a reduction in 2020 but started to recover in 2021." He also believes test volume was hurt by "the impact of certain schools and universities experimenting with test optional admissions practices" and "some shift to the Executive Assessment (EA) as EA continues to gain greater acceptance and previous GMAT testing volume targeted at EMBA programs is now directed towards the EA. EA is in its 5th consecutive year of growth."
Outside North America, with typically represents a third of the market for GMAT testing, there are, in Chowfla's words, "some puts and takes."
China, which contributed greatly in the peak testing year of 2012 then representing 20% of global testing, has been especially weak. "Testing volume in China declined substantially in 2020 as the government does not allow for any form of online testing," explains Chowfla. "Overall volume recovered in 2021 as test centers opened but is still below 2019 levels. We also attribute this to the slow pace of visa issuance by US embassies, the continued tensions between the U.S. and China, and the impact of China’s zero Covid policy and associated travel restrictions. Chinese volumes may remain suppressed for a while."
INDIA IS RECOVERING AND EUROPE IS ANOTHER STRONG REGION
India, another big market, has also been in decline. Going from a peak of 33,046 tests in 2016 to just 26,129 in testing year 2020. But Chowfla says that Indian test volumes are showing "a very strong recovery with volumes already exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Europe is the other strong region. Test volumes have been ahead of projections for 2021 and likely in 2022. A lot of the score sending volume growth in India is also being directed at European schools signaling that we may be in for a period of secular growth there. Other regions are all recovering. Latin America, Middle East, Africa all showed good year on year growth in volumes in 2021. Overall, they stay slightly (in single digits) behind pre pandemic levels but will probably catch up this year."
That seems a rosy assessment given the five consecutive years of decline in worldwide GMAT test volume. After all, if GMAC had maintained the annual volume of test taking in achieved back in 2012, admittedly an exceptional year, it would have collected an extra $134.5 million in test revenue over the past nine years. Just the year-over-year decline in volume from 2020 to 2021 cost GMAC some $4.2 million in test revenue.
The declines have impacted the non-profit organization's bottom line. For the 2019 year, the last public filing by GMAC, the organization reported a loss of $5.7 million, against a year-earlier net income of $1.6 million. The loss in 2019 occurred even after investment income of more than $5.5 million.
Will the GMAT test business ever come back? Not likely, due to both the increased marketshare of the GRE as well as the trend against standardized test taking in general. Chowfla, however, isn't willing to go that far.
'THE U.S. WILL STAY SOFT FOR A WHILE'
"The decline that you see in the overall numbers can be somewhat equally be attributable to the U.S. and China, offset by strong growth in India and Europe," says Chowfla. "We would anticipate that the U.S. will stay soft for a while as schools evaluate their experiment with test optional policies and candidates also evaluate their options. As an aside, approximately eight out of 10 candidates who had recently applied to a school, including those who did not take a test, in our most recent surveys agreed with the proposition that the use of a standardized test increases the transparency and fairness of the admissions process and that it demonstrates the importance that a business school puts on the quality of its students.
"China is more difficult to forecast as strong demand for graduate management education continues to exist," he adds. "The limiting factors are geo-political concerns and China’s zero Covid policy that basically states that once you leave the country, it is very difficult to get back in. If China changes that approach post the Olympics, we may see a strong resurgence in demand."