Top-Ranked MBA Programs Struggle To Reverse Declining Applications
Some of the most-sought after business schools—UCLA, Yale, Stanford and Harvard among them—are losing favor among US applicants.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In the summer of 2022, as she began her work recruiting the class of 2025 at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Shelly Heinrich was optimistic. The previous cycle had been disappointing—applications had been down. “It was the first full summer where I felt we are past the Covid restrictions and started to think things were going to kind of get back to normal,” recalls Heinrich, an associate dean overseeing the school’s MBA admissions.
They didn’t. McDonough and many other competitive schools admit students in rounds, and the conventional wisdom is to apply early. But in the first round that fall, applications from Americans were way down. At the same time, “we started to see early indications of very strong international demand,” Heinrich says. By Round Three that winter, tech sector layoffs were mounting and domestic applications rebounded. Still, when Round Four closed in May, Georgetown had received 7% fewer applications than in the previous cycle, which itself was down 5% from the cycle before that.
Georgetown was not alone. Data collected from highly ranked business schools in our survey indicates that applications to full-time MBA programs at most of those institutions have been falling since at least 2017, despite two good years during the pandemic. At least 17 of the top 26 programs have seen long-term application declines—which for most of them continued into 2023. (At press time, Columbia Business School had yet to publish data for its class of 2025. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business declined to provide application figures for the last two years.)
“Yale was practically begging people to apply,” says Barbara Coward, a B-school admissions consultant. As spring 2023 approached, Coward says, “Yale and other schools were sending messaging, emails and blogs that I’ve never seen before, saying, ‘What you’ve heard about applying in Round Three is not true!’” (“We are planning to admit more aggressively than in years past,” an assistant admissions dean at the Yale School of Management wrote in one message.) Some schools added rounds or extended deadlines.
Dean Bruce DelMonico told by email that Yale anticipated more third-round applications than usual and adjusted admittances accordingly. “Our selectivity was as low if not lower than most years in Round 3,” he said. Still, applications to the School of Management were down about 5% this year and by a quarter since 2017.
Elite programs seem to have fared worse than the broader cohort of American full-time MBA programs. A new survey of application trends from the Graduate Management Admission Council found that slightly more US programs saw applications increase over last year than saw decreases. Worldwide, according to the survey, top-100 programs were more likely to see applications dip in 2023 than poorly ranked or unranked programs. If the trend continues, middle- and upper-middle-ranked programs—particularly those at schools without large endowments to fund operations—could find themselves getting squeezed.
Not everybody is souring on an American MBA—just Americans. While 85% of full-time, two-year MBA programs saw fewer domestic applications in 2022 than in 2021, according to last year’s GMAC survey, 80% of those programs saw more applications from international students. That dynamic moderated but continued in 2023. Most schools don’t publicly break down how many applicants are foreign citizens; six schools did share these figures with All six reported that international applicants for the class of 2025 amounted to between 60% and 90% of the total.
Although even these schools were more likely to admit a US applicant than one from abroad, the shortfall in domestic interest has created openings for foreign students at most top business schools. Since 2019 the international share of matriculating students has grown by double digits for at least 22 of the top 26 schools in ’s ranking. Several programs, including the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, have pursued an official STEM designation that allows foreign students to work in the US for up to three years after graduating.
Still, full-time MBA enrollment at schools surveyed by also dropped slightly overall. Here, too, these programs appear to have fared worse than those at US B-schools generally. Enrollment at these top-ranked schools fell by 3% between 2017 and last year, but rose by 2% across a broader swath of schools, to judge from data collected from 290 US B-schools by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Admissions officers and school deans chalk up the applications slump in part to the strong US economy, even through the pandemic. “Students of MBA age that may have been laid off in 2020 regained employment in 2021, and they’re going to want to stick with those jobs for a few years,” says Georgetown’s Heinrich. The recent effects of the tech sector shedding jobs and the seemingly cooling economy didn’t reach campus in time for fall classes. “There’s a lag effect,” says Greg Hanifee, associate dean for degree programs at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “It sometimes takes up to a year for some applicants to get into the right headspace.” (As layoffs piled up last fall and winter, Kellogg was the first of several schools to waive tests or fees for unemployed tech workers. It was one of the few schools to see an increase in both domestic and foreign applications, from a broad range of industries, Hanifee says, though the school enrolled a slightly higher share of students this fall from tech.)
Some administrators also say that online and other novel MBA offerings have chipped away at interest in a traditional MBA—though at schools less selective than their own. Georgetown’s Heinrich points to an expanded array of specialized business master’s degrees in fields like finance and business analytics that have siphoned some students away. According to the AACSB, enrollment across all types of programs at US business schools broadly increased by 8% from 2017 to 2022 on the strength of such programs, but fell slightly from a peak in 2021.
Faced with declining interest, MBA program managers have had to balance reaching deeper into the applicant pool to maintain class size against degrading the quality of the class. For the most selective schools, that’s not really an issue, according to Peter Johnson, director of the full-time MBA program at Haas until 2022. But because those schools are chasing more of the same students, “actually enrolling those people becomes a lot tougher,” says Johnson, now a consultant at Fortuna Admissions. “You also see more candidates negotiating for scholarships” and finding other ways to use their leverage. All that filters down to the tier directly below. While all of the top eight schools in ’s rankings increased their classes, if only slightly, in the last six years, 15 of the next 18 reduced theirs.
Recruiting more international students poses its own problems. Most B-schools have tried to keep international enrollment below 40%, owing to the difficulty those students have finding jobs in the US, says Soojin Kwon, who managed the MBA program and admissions at Ross until 2022. Now, international students comprise half of this fall’s entering class in at least a half-dozen schools. At Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, nearly two-thirds hold international citizenship. (Cornell declined to comment for this story.)
Georgetown’s McDonough increased its international enrollment to nearly 60% of its new class. “We did have strategic conversations about the international percentage, and the result of those conversations is that we’re a global program, in a global city,” Heinrich says. “And our career center put in a lot of additional programming and resources to prepare the international students to be successful.”
A handful of schools—many in the South and Southeast—saw upticks in applications. Applications to Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business surged this year, principally from abroad, after the school earned an official STEM designation. In 2016, Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business laid plans to increase the size of its full-time MBA class by half beginning in 2020. “We were too small for the demand in the state,” says Dean Peter Rodriguez. Even as he saw applications fall at Jones and elsewhere, “I thought that we would be able to still achieve growth because we started from such an unnaturally low base.” Applications are up 20% this year.
And early signs suggest that things are improving elsewhere for next fall. At Georgetown, applications so far are up sharply from last year. “I’ve had 60 people call me since May,” says Coward, the admissions consultant. “I had nowhere near that last year. Last year was quiet.”
(Updates chart with Berkeley Haas.)
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