Digging Deeper: Behind Cornell’s Incredible 20% Jump In MBA Apps

Cornell Tech’s campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management has had quite a 2022. In August, the B-school’s dean, Mark Nelson, announced that he would step down at the end of the school year. The next month the school released its MBA class profile showing a 20% year-over-year growth in applications — a feat that became more astonishing as, one by one, each peer school posted app volume losses. Among the top 25 U.S. B-schools, only two others this fall — UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and USC Marshall School of Business — have reported app growth in the 2021-2022 cycle.

Some credit is certainly due to the Johnson School’s move to designate the MBA as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degree in early 2021. Overall applications rose by more than 21%, by 450 to 2,555, mostly because of a major infusion of international applications. The foundation of that infusion is two-fold. Internationals students were drawn to a STEM school and the promise of two additional years of work in the U.S. after leaving school. Additionally, even as the strong U.S. economy dampened domestic enthusiasm for graduation school, global economies have had a harder time recovering from pandemic-related struggles.

It added up to a great 2021-2022 for the Johnson School, which was able to keep its class size (303) and most of its other metrics stable even as peer schools struggled to overcome the headwinds. In a wide-ranging interview edited for length and clarity, Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight dean of Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business, addresses the app growth phenomenon, the current graduate business education landscape, and more.


P&Q: Can you assess the state of the full-time MBA today? Do you think the domestic app decline in the U.S. will continue, and will it continue to be offset by international apps? 

Andrew Karolyi: The state of the full-time MBA continues to be strong, and we continue to attract high-quality students to Johnson. We anticipate the domestic application decline to halt and perhaps reverse, with international demand continuing to be strong.

We have seen some domestic applicants postponing their MBA given the hot job market and retention incentives being offered by employers and anticipate less of that occurring if the job market cools.

Is it going to take a recession to turn around MBA applications?

I think we all have the data. We’ve all been students of that data, and we know that there is this counter-cyclicality that is built into the MBA marketplace. So there’s no reason to expect that it will be any different for this cycle that’s coming around.

I think the bigger question is, just how deep and how long a duration are we expecting for this recession? Because that’s what really factors into people’s calculations, to judge whether or not to take on the debt burden associated with funding.

But I would say that if the experts are correct that it will not be a deep recession, and if the experts are correct that it will be not a long-duration recession, with all the uncertainty around those two consensus forecasts, I would imagine that that would transform to be less of a counter-cyclical push back into the MBA game.

So I don’t know how much of a dramatic pivot there will be in the declining numbers in terms of, certainly, the domestic applicant pool. What’s really interesting for us at Cornell, of course, is that we were one of the few schools that actually saw a nice positive blip while others saw a drop.

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