The Changing Face Of International Student Mobility

graduate management education

Sangeet Chowfla, the former CEO of the Graduate Management Admissions Council, reflects on the business of business education

Graduate Management Education (GME) seems to be entering its third cycle and this transition, like most cyclical transitions, creates changes in supply and demand with attendant winners and losers.

The first phase, Wharton, Tuck, and Harvard in the early 1900s (or ESCP a century earlier if you want to go that so far), were largely national constructs. They sought to provide a holistic education in business to the sons (women were not even admitted into HBS till the mid-1950s) of the nation’s elites. There was little diversity and limited international participation till well into the post war period. GME was largely a western product for the western world. Both demand (students) and supply (business schools of quality) were in the West.

The second phase started in the ’60s and ’70s, accelerated in the 90s and took off early this century. India’s balance of payments crisis (1991) and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China (1992) started opening two dormant economies with enormous populations. China’s accession to the WTO (2001) contributed to a new era of globalization. The resulting economic growth in India and China, with spillover effects into other developing economies, created large middle classes with a hunger for education and the development of the next generation. Demand for education, primarily in business and engineering,  surged faster than capacity at domestic educational establishments of quality. Two other factors contributed. One was the globalization of business and the demand within corporations for truly global managers rather than western expatriates. The second was the liberalization of immigration regimes in the West, opening a pathway that could be accessed through an advanced degree. 

There were more focused effects as well. China joining the World Trade Organization created a need for staff with an understanding of western accounting standards such as GAAP and IFRS. Suddenly there was a surge of Chinese applicants to such programs in the West.


Demand became global but supply was largely in the West. Many Western business schools responded by expanding capacity and programming.

All this is changing in the third phase. Demand continues to be global but is tilting towards the East. Only 53% of aggregate GME applications in the U.S. were from domestic students after a decline of almost a quarter over the previous year (see GMAC 2022 application trends survey). In Europe, domestic applications were only 17% of the total. Business schools in the West are increasingly dependent on their international pipelines, but these pipelines themselves are changing as illustrated in the following GMAT score sending data which demonstrates the evolving patterns of student mobility.



There are multiple reasons for these changes. One is simply underlying economic growth in these economies. It is typified in a conversation I had some years ago with a student studying at Fudan in Shanghai. I asked him why he chose a school in China rather than studying abroad. His answer was that he saw his future career working within the Chinese startup sector or with the likes of Alibaba and Tencent. Why then would he drop out of the local network to study at a school abroad? He volunteered that if he had been accepted at a “top” (his words) school like Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton he would have considered it but not for the other good, but not “top” schools.

The picture is a bit different in India where a desire for international careers rather than a domestic one plays a bigger role. In a study done some years ago, we found that six out of 10 Indian students that applied to Graduate Management Education programs abroad were driven by a desire to build an international career while only 1 out of 10 Chinese students were. But China is further along the development journey than India. We don’t have the data, but would Chinese students have had similar motivations to Indian ones 20 years ago? Will Indian students be more like the Chinese 20 years hence? Of course, social factors like language fluency will also play a part.

Another factor is the flip side of the coin. The supply picture. Quality business education was once largely provided in the West. Beyond a narrow sliver of schools (the IIM’s and ISB in India, the likes of Tsinghua, Peking and Fudan in China) a prospective student had no choice but to consider a Western business school. That has changed dramatically in the last two decades as is demonstrated vividly when you analyze the trends in the FT listing of the top 50 global MBA programs.


In 2000, MBA programs domiciled in the U.S. occupied 38 of the top 50 positions. Schools in Asia had none. This year the U.S. had 29 positions while Asia had 8. Europe makes up the rest. It’s not that US schools have gotten worse, it’s just that others have caught up, students have more choices and the combination of these factors is creating a regionalization effect with students choosing to stay closer to home for career reasons and having that decision validated by the availability of high-quality programs within the region (I am not even getting into East/West collaborations and offshore campuses that will only exacerbate this trend).


 The increased acceptance of business masters programs is also playing a part. Europe has had a historical lead, particularly in pre-experienced Master in Management (MiM) programs, and a younger application cohort is drawn to these programs. 

There are other, subtler, factors at play here. The Pandemic limited international travel and students who were locked into a particular study destination paradigm (frequently the US) were forced to look for alternatives. Europe, with its geographical and time zone proximity, appealed to many in Asia. They had good outcomes, and the word spread. Schools like Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, ESMT Berlin, and BI Norwegian Business School are now on the “list”. Shorter, lower cost, European programs are financially attractive. Many are in countries with liberal work visas and immigration policies. You can see the impact in the GMAT scores sent to Europe in the chart above.


The last factor is the impact of technology and the growth of remote or online learning. Here the picture is muddier. At one level it increases access and should draw in more international candidates. On the other, does a student in Asia want to make the investment in time and treasure to study from his crowded apartment back home, often at an inhospitable hour due to time zone differences? Potentially, if the value proposition is compelling and the programming is asynchronous. Programs from Indiana and Boston (Mid-twenties tuition and largely asynchronous) seem to be attracting a good international mix. Others with much higher price points and synchronous components are not.

Online education creates another risk for some. A 2021 study found that a third of international students (and half of the domestic students) said that they would consider an online program from a higher-ranked school over an in-person program from a lower-ranked one, potentially setting up a flight to quality.


Business schools in the West responded to strong international demand during the globalization era (GME phase 2) by increasing capacity. A case in point is the expansion of accounting masters programs that was largely filled with students from China. That demand picture is changing due to economic growth in Asia, the availability of quality options closer to home, the increased attractiveness of European programs. Online programming may be a boon to some but a risk to others. This has created excess capacity that is not being met by matching demand.

In the U.S., the picture is clouded further by a decline in domestic interest in GME. Perhaps that will change as the economy turns and countercyclical effects take hold. It certainly has in the past.

Larger, global, brands are likely to continue to hold their position and attract both domestic and international candidates. Others will need to adapt to sustain themselves. For some, the answer may lie in building a market position amongst fast-growing population segments – for example, Hispanic Americans, the subject of my last column. Others by carving out specific industry or domain positions. One thing is clear, generic mid-tier schools will have a difficult time maintaining previous enrollment levels.

“Everything, everywhere, all at once” took home seven Oscars, including best picture. But it may not be a viable position for a business school.

Sangeet Chowfla

Sangeet Chowfla led the Graduate Management Admissions Council as president and CEO for nearly ten years from 2014 to 2022. A globally recognized and respected executive with deep experience in the technology, telecommunications, and venture capital sectors, he began his career in New Delhi with IBM/IDM. Chowfla went on to spend 18 years with Hewlett-Packard Co. in Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and the United States. He culminated his tenure with the company as vice president and general manager of the Inkjet Media Division from 1995-2001. He then moved to Timeline Ventures as a partner in the venture capital partnership. In 2007, Chowfla became the chief strategy officer and executive vice president of the Mobile Services and Global Market Units of Comviva Technologies, a leading Indian telecommunications software company. Chowfla joined GMAC during a period of disruption in the organization and industry. During the last three years of his tenure, he helped to stabilize the candidate pipeline, renewed GMAT exam growth, diversified GMAC’s footprint and ensured a strong financial foundation to enable future investment.

DON’T MISS: A Decade Of Graduate Management Education: ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ or Why Diversity Is Essential To The Health Of The U.S. Domestic Student Pipeline

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