MBA programs are known to be “counter-cyclical” in popularity: When the economy is good, interest in getting a graduate business degree drops. When the economy dips — or recession strikes, or a worldwide pandemic disrupts the global business and academic paradigm — interest in going back to school heats up. The fact that apps to most top-25 MBA programs climbed in 2020-2021 may be construed as a canary in a coal mine, an early indicator that the economy may not be as strong as widely supposed — or it can be explained by the fact that while the U.S. economy remains strong, the European and many Asian economies are lagging, leading to international applicants picking up the slack caused by sagging domestic numbers.
At the Comprehensive Business School Deans Summit on the campus of USC Marshall School of Business last month, at which deans from more than a dozen leading U.S. B-schools met to discuss topics ranging from the need for more comprehensive rankings to the state of specialized master’s programs, Poets&Quants asked some of the deans present for their thoughts on the United States and global economies and the impact to their respective programs of the apparently strong economy. Ohad Kadan, the incoming dean of ASU Carey School of Business; Raghu Sundaram, dean of NYU Stern School of Business; and Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, each offered their views of the current economy and its impact on applications to their MBA programs.
P&Q later discussed the subject with Lilian Mills, dean of the UT-Austin McCombs School of Business, who was scheduled but unable to attend the summit.
INTERNATIONAL APPS OFFSET DOMESTIC
It’s hard to pin down the impact of so big and nebulous a thing as “the economy” when talking about a process with a yearly cycle like MBA applications. As soon as you start talking about a “good” economy and the headwinds it creates for B-school apps, indicators of change arise to shift the conversation. Indeed, apps climbed in 2020-2021 and several schools have reported unofficial increases in interest in the just-concluded 2021-2022 cycle — which presages some kind of economic turmoil ahead.
Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, dean of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, says the strong economy through 2021 and into 2022 may have dampened U.S. applicants’ interest in MBA programs at some graduate business programs, but the Tepper School has not seen a downturn at all — and actually saw a big jump in international apps.
“It is counter-cyclical, for sure,” she says of MBA application patterns. “Now we’re not only competing with other top business schools, we’re also competing with the employers, the corporate side. It doesn’t make sense for a lot of people to leave their jobs, especially on the domestic front. But we actually saw more applications. International, a lot more.
“The challenge is more on domestic side because the competition is there from the corporate world now, and employers are doing whatever they can to retain their top talents. So, that’s the countercyclical. What’s going to happen in the future? I don’t know. None of us do.”
A lot of people are talking about a recession, Bajeux-Besnainou says. However, “When I think about the U.S., I think that this is the country that is in the best position at this point.” Europe, she notes, is in a difficult situation with the war in Ukraine.
“We see a lot of increase in the international applicants from India and from China — a huge increase,” she says. The challenge, she adds, in addition to finding the right balance in each MBA class between domestic and international students, is that international students need more help to find jobs.
“But if the job market continues to be strong, which I think it will, it shouldn’t be such a challenge two years from now.”
ENROLLING MORE WOMEN: A ‘STRATEGIC PRIORITY’
The Tepper School is among the top-25 programs with the biggest increase in apps since 2019. One area where Tepper has struggled, however, is in enrolling women in its MBA. Since reaching a high of 33% in 2019, the school has seen declines two straight years, to a low among top-25 schools of 21% in 2021.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be done” to enroll more women in MBA programs in general, and at Tepper in particular, Bajeux-Besnainou says. “I think it needs to be very intentional in the way that we’re managing that. And we need to make sure that women feel that they’re welcome and they belong.”
She points to Tepper’s new strategic plan, which includes the school’s plans for greater inclusiveness. Enrolling more women is among the school’s priorities, she says.
“Lots of transparency,” Bajeux-Besnainou says. “I think when it comes to enrolling more women, it’s being transparent, it’s being intentional and making sure that we are putting it among our strategic priorities — and making sure that we are not happy with where we are right now. And we’re putting in place the right measures to make sure that students feel welcome and feel that they belong.”
See the next pages for excerpts from P&Q’s interviews with Lilian Mills of Texas-Austin McCombs, Raghu Sundaram of NYU Stern, and Ohad Kadan of ASU Carey.