The Trump years were a disaster for U.S. business schools. International enrollment, commonly a third or more of yearly enrollment at the leading MBA programs in the United States, plummeted from 2017 to 2020, with 41 of the top-ranked 49 schools reporting losses. All but eight of those schools’ losses were in the double digits percentage-wise. No wonder deans from the top B-schools were so vociferous in their opposition to Trump’s immigration policies, and so relieved to see him lose his re-election bid last November. Of course, the pandemic only exacerbated the declines in the past year.
The pain has been felt unevenly. Altogether in the top 25, the average international attrition over Trump’s presidency was around 6.4 percentage points across 21 schools for which we have sufficient data to compare, including losses of 20% or more at 10 schools, with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suffering the worst drop-off: The Kenan-Flagler Business School lost more than 57% of its international MBA enrollment from 2017 to 2020, declining from 27% to just 11.5%. For the top 10 schools, the losses were steeper: 17.2% at nine schools, where the average proportion of foreign MBA students went from 35.7% to 30.5%. Worst-hit among those elite institutions: Trump’s alma mater Wharton, which lost 44% of its foreign MBA students, going from 32.4% in 2017 to just 19% this fall.
Only three top-25 schools, and 8 of the top 51, avoided losses during the Trump presidency, including Columbia Business School, which gained slightly (2.3%) to report the highest overall percentage of internationals for any top-50 school in 2020: 44%. Schools in the U.S. South were acutely affected; see the table below, which shows that the bleeding began in 2017 for UNC, which has lost more than 60% of international MBA enrollment in five years. Still, that’s not as bad as the attrition at either the University of Georgia Terry College of Business (-60.9%) or Texas A&M Mays Business School (-66.2%).
Yet even as international applications and enrollment dwindled nearly across the board, one silver lining persisted for U.S. B-schools: Salaries kept going up, for U.S. and international graduates alike. A P&Q analysis of recently published U.S. News data finds that while their counterparts with U.S. citizenship tended to have higher starting salaries overall, particularly at the highest-ranking schools, almost everywhere they went international MBA graduates of U.S. B-schools kept proving the value of the degree by making more year over year — and, in more than a few cases at smaller schools, consistently out-earning their U.S. classmates.
SOUTHERN U.S. SCHOOLS BEAR BRUNT OF INTERNATIONAL DISINTEREST
Of course, Trump wasn’t the only obstacle in the overseas-to-U.S. B-school talent pipeline. But federal animosity toward any form of immigration badly compounded the ever-escalating cost of an MBA, and when the ongoing pandemic swept in in 2020, the bottom fell out.
The bottom has unquestionably fallen out hardest in the U.S. South. For the 13 most prominent B-schools in that region — ranging from top-15 schools like Duke University Fuqua School of Business and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business to lower-ranked schools like the University of Florida Warrington College of Business and Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business — starting in the year 2016, the numbers went in one direction: down. The average international MBA enrollment at the 13 schools fell from 29.6% in 2016 t0 just 18.9% last fall, a loss of more than one-third. Seven of the schools lost more than 30% in that span. Another school not included in the table above because we didn’t have data for all four years, the University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business, saw its foreign MBA enrollment dip to 4% this year — lowest of any school we looked at, giving Tennessee an estimated two MBA students from outside the U.S.
In 2017, 33 schools in the top 53 had 30% or more international enrollment in their full-time MBA programs. By last fall that number had dwindled to 17 schools. Four years ago, just five schools were below 20%; now there are 15.
But there are signs that things are about to improve. Trump lost re-election, signaling to overseas talent that the welcome sign was about to go back up in the U.S. According to a recent report by Bloomberg Businessweek, “Two months into the Biden administration, U.S. schools are cautiously optimistic that the tide will turn in their favor. (BYU) Marriott saw a 117% increase in international applicants for the class of 2022. And NYU Stern says global interest was strong last year, with a third of that class holding non-U.S. passports.” Meanwhile, the Graduate Management Admission Council recently published a major report showing an uptick in interest among international MBA candidates for study in the U.S. in 2021 and beyond.
SMALLER SCHOOLS SOMETIMES OFFER INTERNATIONALS MORE SALARY BANG
For those willing to brave the cultural and political hurdles, the rewards of an MBA from a U.S. B-school have always been high. Strangely enough, they are highest for international MBAs (relative to their U.S. counterparts) at some of the same schools that are most struggling to attract foreign talent.
Columbia Business School boasts the highest average starting salary for international MBAs in 2020, at just over $146K; compare that with Stanford, which has the highest domestic MBA salary once again, at $168K. But it’s not an ironclad truism that U.S. citizen MBAs make more than their international colleagues — especially the further you go down the rankings. Five of the top 25 schools reported higher average starting salaries for internationals in 2020, with Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management the highest-ranked; but 12 schools did so in the bottom 25, including Vanderbilt Owen, with an international salary average of $132K and a U.S. average of $125K, even as the school has lost more than 50% of international enrollment in the last five years; and Georgia Terry, with an international average of $118K and a domestic average of $110, while the Terry College lost more than 60% of foreign MBA enrollment since 2016. Meanwhile, nine schools in the top 25 and 24 overall saw greater gains in international salaries than domestic ones over the last four years, though the former salaries still trail the latter ones.
The biggest gains in both U.S. and international salary averages came further down the P&Q ranking. UC-Davis Graduate School of Management, ranked 47th, improved its U.S. MBAs’ starting salary 32.2% to $122,973 in 2020; Indiana University Kelley School of Business, ranked 23rd, was best in international gain, at 30.5% to $122,303.
Thirty-two schools saw double-digit percentage gains in U.S. salaries over four years, while 25 saw the same for their international MBAs. The average four-year gain for U.S. salaries in the top 10 was 13.3% at eight schools; for international salaries, 11% at seven schools. In the top 25, the average U.S. gain was 12.6% at 23 schools; for international salaries, nearly identical: 12.5% at 21 schools. No school reported a decline in average salaries for the former, while five reported losses (averaging 6.3% total) for the latter: Stanford GSB, Emory Goizueta, SMU Cox, UC-Irvine Merage School of Business, and Rutgers Business School. The Merage School had the greatest four-year decline in international average salary, of more than 12%, to $89,263.
Overall, the smallest average U.S. salary was at No. 51 Purdue Krannert: $91,529. The smallest average international salary was at No, 49 Utah Eccles: $84,333.
OUTSIDE THE U.S., INTERNATIONAL ENROLLMENT IS THE WHOLE ENCHILADA
The average international student percentage for a top-10 MBA program in the U.S. is 30.5%, down from 35.5% last year. The average in the top 25 is 26.8%, down from 31.6%.
Now compare those levels to some of the biggest MBA programs outside the U.S. and it’s clear that European and other schools rely much more on non-native students. At most of the five schools we have looked at over the years (see above), as well as at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, little has changed in terms of international enrollment in the full-time MBA. The biggest gain over five years since 2016 has occurred at IE Business School of Spain, which grew its foreign enrollment by 3 percentage points, to 95%. Interestingly, IE is the only B-school to report a decline in salary average, according to data from The Financial Times.
Four of the five European schools in the table above have international enrollment in the 90% or higher range; Toronto’s Rotman School has grown its foreign enrollment by 17 percentage points since 2018, returning to previous levels.
See page 2 for enrollment data for the MBA classes of 2021 and 2022 at 53 of the top U.S. MBA programs; pages 3 and 4 for international enrollment data for the last four years at those schools; and pages 5 and 6 for those schools’ salary data.