5 Big MBA Trends In GMAC’s Latest Survey

Prospective B-school students are skeptical about programs with test-optional admissions, according to GMAC’s latest survey

For its annual Prospective Students Survey released earlier this month, the Graduate Management Admission Council polled more than 6,500 people in more than 150 countries who expressed interest in graduate business education in 2021. It found, foremost, that while concerns about inflation, the job market, and the rising cost of an MBA are (as always) on the minds of candidates for graduate business education, most continue to have a positive view of the potential impact of a graduate business degree to their professional and personal growth.

In fact, as Poets&Quants has reported, GMAC found that 4 in 5 candidates — more than 80% of survey respondents — say that a graduate business degree allows them to stand out at work. That level of agreement is consistent across the years, pre-pandemic to today.

But GMAC’s survey was a document with more than 40 pages of data. What other valuable nuggets did it contain? We chose five of the most important and interesting.

1. The full-time MBA still reigns supreme as the most preferred program type.

More than 40% of prospective students in the business school pipeline want to earn an MBA in a full-time format as a part of either a two- (22% of candidates in 2021) or one-year (21%) program, GMAC found. Growth in interest in one-year MBAs is notable: Among U.S. domestic candidates, preference for the full-time, one-year MBA rose from 15 to 19% between 2019 and 2021, similar across gender and undergraduate major; among candidates looking to study in Western Europe, 22% prefer the full-time, one-year MBA, followed by Master of Finance (13%) and Master in Management (11%).

In one region in particular, interest in the full-time MBA has skyrocketed since before the pandemic. Candidates who prefer to study in Central and South Asia show significantly increased interest — from 10 to 43 % — in the full-time, two-year MBA compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Source: GMAC

2. Candidates see higher value in the in-person business school experience.

Most of the prospective students polled by GMAC in 2021 — 73% — disagree that online programs offer the same value as on-campus programs. Networking opportunities are not equivalent, about 4 in 5 say, while 2 in 3 disagree that the career opportunities are the same. These numbers have “softened slightly” since 2020, GMAC says.

Part of the reason may be that people are getting used to virtual learning. According to GMAC’s 2020 Application Trends Survey, in the first admissions cycle of the pandemic,
 83% of online MBA programs saw an increase 
in applications compared with the year before, with
 57% saying applications were up more than 20%. That wave crested and receded somewhat in the next admissions cycle, as the 2021 survey found that 71% of online MBA programs saw application volumes drop, including 30% reporting declines of 20% or more. But hybrid learning is gaining traction: Globally, 20% of candidates prefer hybrid program delivery (more on that below), up from 14% pre-pandemic.

Another silver lining for schools invested in online ed: While most disagree that online degree programs offer the same value as on-campus programs, older candidates age 31 and up — as well as 
those who prefer part-time, flexible, or executive MBA programs — express more positive views of the value of online programs.

Source: GMAC

3. While most prefer in-person, interest in hybrid program delivery is up across the board.

“Over the course of the pandemic, most people got used to doing more things that they used to do in-person on the internet,” GMAC writes. “Interestingly, among the survey sample this did not result in a significant increase in candidates preferring to complete programs primarily online, but rather an increase in candidates preferring a hybrid approach to course delivery.”

Candidates expressing a preference for hybrid program delivery increased from 14% pre-pandemic to 20% in 2021, with similar increases seen across candidate types, especially Chinese candidates, whose preference for hybrid increased from 10 to 23%.

“Consistent with prior to the pandemic, interest in hybrid delivery is higher among candidates preferring professional MBA program types such as executive MBA, part-time MBA, and flexible MBA (44% in 2021) than candidates preferring full-time business master’s (20%) or MBA programs (13%), but interest increased significantly for all between 2019 and 2021,” GMAC writes.

Source: GMAC

4. Interest in STEM-certified programs is climbing with international candidates.

In the U.S., STEM-certified programs have extra value to international students. Students with STEM-designated master’s degrees can work in the U.S. for up to three years after graduation without a H1-B visa through the Optional Practical Training program, or OPT. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for STEM jobs will grow by 13% by 2027, with higher wages than non-STEM jobs: The national average for STEM salaries is $87,570, while non-STEM jobs earn roughly half as much, with an annual average of $45,700; and of course MBAs from top schools make a great deal more.

Because of this, and because international students comprise a huge proportion of enrolled students at U.S. business schools, preference for STEM-certified programs has increased from 39 to 49% between 2019 and 2021, according to GMAC’s survey. The increases are similar between candidates preferring business master’s program types (51% versus 60%) and MBA program types (33% versus 45%), as well as between undergraduate STEM majors (45% versus 56%) and non-STEM majors (36% versus 46%).
By citizenship, candidates from India are the most likely to prefer STEM-certified programs (62%), especially among men (63%) and those who were undergrad STEM majors (65%).

Source: GMAC

5. Test-optional policies may hurt candidate perceptions of fairness and transparency in business school admissions — especially among international candidates.

You would expect the organization that administers the Graduate Management Admission Test to promote the view that the GMAT is essential to the quality of a program. Still, it’s interesting to see to what degree candidates for graduate business education still see the GMAT that way.

Globally, most candidates agree that admissions exams — presumably including the GMAT’s main competitor, the Graduate Record Exam — “improve the fairness and transparency of business school admissions (56%),” GMAC found. “Most also agree that exams improve schools’ reliability in evaluating applicants (57%) and demonstrate the importance they place
on the quality of the students they admit (59%).”

GMAC continues: “A clear trend in survey responses is that international candidates view admissions testing especially favorably. About half say a school’s use of admissions exams is an indicator of the quality of the program and is an important criterion for considering applying to that school. In addition, twice as many international candidates agree than disagree that admissions exams are an effective way to determine which students to admit.”

But what about U.S. domestic candidates? They aren’t so sure — which explains why so many B-schools continue to allow test waivers. “Views of admissions tests are significantly less favorable than other global candidates across many statements,” GMAC found. “Attention to this large population’s resistance to this tool requires careful balance when acknowledging standardized testing’s many benefits.”