In 2020, there were 6,971 applicants to Columbia Business School. In 2021, that number dropped to 6,535; By 2022 there were only 6,177.
NYU Stern School of Business reported a 10% decrease from its previous cycle. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School’s full-time MBA program saw a 14% drop for the newly arrived class of 2024. UCLA Anderson School of Management saw a 20% drop, and the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School’s application count dropped 9%. (Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson School of Business in New York followed suit, with applicants increasing by 21%.)
While the numbers are alarming, there may be a simple explanation, says David White, Menlo Coaching’s co-founder and MBA admissions consultant. Last year and 2020 were exceptional years for MBA applicants for a number of reasons, he says.
“Some universities have extended deadlines or waived GMAT/GRE requirements due to COVID, and applicants are worried about losing their jobs due to COVID-related layoffs,” he says. “As these factors return to normal, practices will return to pre-COVID levels.”
In addition, the US unemployment rate is 3.5%, leading some prospective candidates to stay in employment instead of taking a break from business school.
Meanwhile, some programs are taking practical steps to encourage more applicants.
For example, in 2020 Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management offers a MBA program Combining traditional MBA courses with those related to artificial intelligence is to target AI professionals who may have assumed a traditional MBA wasn’t right for them, White says.
And in August of this year, Harvard Business School announced that it will provide more full-tuition scholarships, currently covering about 10% of the student body.
Nerissa Brown, vice dean of graduate programs, says the Gies School of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is increasing its portfolio of digital commerce offerings to attract a wider student body.
Gies has added an online Master of Science in Management (iMSM) and is launching a range of online postgraduate certifications in a variety of business specialties. It also launched two certifications in strategic leadership and management and accounting data analysis in August, and a third certification in digital marketing launch in spring 2023.
Brown says the decline in applicants is simply cyclical.
“Historically, we’ve seen a decline in graduate job applications when the economy and job market are strong, which is probably what we’re seeing right now,” Brown says. On the other hand, applications tend to rise during economic downturns or recessions.”
Gies says on-campus programs have also been affected by international visa cuts, an issue the school still sees coming out of the pandemic.
A silver lining for students: Acceptance rates are on the rise due to the drop in applications. At Columbia, for example, the acceptance rate was 16.2% in 2020 versus 22.1% in 2022.
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