Over the last two momentous years in graduate business education, international students have proven to be the lifeblood of MBA programs at business schools in the United States. Their sustained interest in studying for a U.S. MBA has helped to stave off disaster at one school after another as a strong U.S. economy has driven down domestic application numbers.
2021 was the year of the big rebound, as Trump administration immigration policies were swept aside and pandemic fears and travel restrictions began to ease. The story in 2022 at most of the top B-schools is that the numbers kept rising, offsetting the counter-cyclical dampening effect of a thriving U.S. economy. Exceptions occurred at only five schools in the Poets&Quants top 27 — though, notably, four of those were M7 schools.
Consider: Two years ago, in the crucible of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly half — 12 — of the leading business schools in the U.S. had 25% or fewer international students in their full-time MBA programs. Two years later, not one of those schools had so few, with all but two reporting more than 30% international enrollment, and half now with 40% or more. And the reverse: In 2020, only two of 27 top schools — Columbia Business School (44%) and Yale School of Management (40%) — had at least 40% foreign MBA students; now, 17 can boast that many, with four schools at 50% or more.
FROM 2020-2022, 27 OF 27 SCHOOLS SAW GAINS IN INTERNATIONAL MBA STUDENTS
This year, Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business leads all schools in the top 27 with 56% international students in its full-time MBA program, with Columbia (51%), Georgetown McDonough School of Business (50.2%), and Emory Goizueta Business School (50%) the others achieving "international parity." Two Southern U.S. schools, Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business (26%) and Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business (28%), have the fewest. See page 2 for details.
Across the eventful two-year window of 2020-2022, all 27 B-schools in P&Q's analysis saw gains in their foreign student ranks. In the top 10, the average gain was 10.2 percentage points, or 36.6%, with Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business the biggest by points — 18, or 72%, to 43% — and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania the biggest by percentage: 84.2%, or 16 points, to 35%.
Across all 27 schools, the average gain from 2020 to 2022 was 14.6 percentage points, or 69%. The biggest gain was at CMU Tepper, which doubled its total from 28% to 56%; notably, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School gained 23.5 points, or more than 200%, to 35%. Three other B-schools more than doubled their international ranks in two years.
From 2021 to 2022, the numbers were almost as impressive. Twenty-two of 27 schools saw gains, with only Stanford Graduate School of Business, Chicago Booth School of Business, Wharton, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Duke Fuqua School of Business seeing drop-offs. At the 22 schools with gains, the average was 7.6 points, or 24.5%, with Tepper again leading the way (+22 points or 64.7% to 56%) and Washington Foster School of Business also seeing a huge one-year jump (+19 points or 79.2% to 43%).
Editor's note: This story originally listed Stanford's decline in international students as 10 percentage points from 2021 to 2022. But because Stanford this year changed how it reports international student enrollment, assigning all dual citizens as either domestic or international based on their primary citizenship, the correct number is 1 point, to 46% from 47%.
STEM MAKES A DIFFERENCE
For many top U.S. B-schools, the investment in STEM has clearly paid off. Over the past five years, school after school has designated all or part of their MBA a science, technology, engineering, or math program, a move that not only enhanced the credentials of their graduates but also qualified international grads for longer visa-free work stays in the U.S. By 2020, all of the top schools had some STEM path in their MBA program — a concentration, track, major, or the entire program.
At Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management, the move to designate its entire MBA program STEM in early 2021 paid dividends this year. Cornell was one of only a handful of top-25 B-schools not to see a decline in applications to the full-time MBA program in the 2021-2022 cycle, largely on the strength of a wave of foreign interest in the Johnson MBA program. Its applications rose by an incredible 21%, an increase of 450 to 2,555, even though Cornell presumably felt the same domestic squeeze as its peer schools. The Johnson School was able to keep its class size (303) and most of its other metrics stable thanks to the major infusion of international talent.
And what an infusion. The number of countries represented in Cornell's new MBA class exploded to 43 from 30 last fall, leading to an international population that is 43% of the class, up nearly one-quarter from 35% in the fall of 2021. Andrew Karolyi, the Charles Field Knight dean of Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business, spoke to P&Q in October about how Cornell became the envy of graduate business education this year.
"We received roughly two international applications for every domestic application, and we did admit somewhat more international students, moving from 35% to 43% international representation," Karolyi says. "One benefit of that increase is an increase in the diversity of our international student population, as we moved from 30 to 43 countries represented.
"It is something that we are proud of, but we are also cautious about because we want to understand and interpret exactly what it is that happened there. I don’t think we have any answers. I mean, that’s the truth: We don’t have conclusive answers. We want to obviously give ourselves a lot of credit for the innovativeness of our programs, our marketing, and our incredibly top-flight admissions team under Eddie Asbie. I’ll just say that we’re quite guarded about it. Like all of our competitors, we’re seeing the continuous escalation of pressures on what appears to be, from a macro standpoint, a declining pool of applicants stateside. The question is, how much do we lean into the opportunities to attract international students? Our numbers are going up.
"Also, we clearly are very conscious about building out the importance of a diverse class that showcases all the riches of what can be a diverse class toward a learning experience. We all want that. So we’re prepared to put the resources behind that to be successful. It’s just too important for that program."
See the next page for a complete table of the international student percentages across three years at the top 27 U.S. MBA programs.
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