The coronavirus pandemic has wrought chaos on the U.S. and world economies, but for graduate business education, it has been a blessing in one very important way. Because while Covid-19 upended classroom strategies and devastated campus and co-curricular life — with a still-unknown impact on networking and career services — it has undeniably benefited B-schools by helping them turn around a prolonged slump in MBA applications. After a three-year slide, apps are up at most of the top 25 U.S. B-schools — and at some schools, they’re way up.
Coronavirus hit in March, shutting down campuses just as most schools were wrapping up their final admissions rounds of the 2019-2020 application cycle. That prompted most top schools to extend their final rounds or add new ones, as well as lower (or scratch) testing requirements — and the result for most was an app windfall: an average increase of 22.6% app volume, and more than 550 apps, at 21 schools, which in turn led to increased class sizes (in some cases record class sizes) at many.
Twelve schools enjoyed double-digit percentage increases in applications, led by USC’s Marshall School of Business, which saw an amazing 66.4% jump in apps; Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business, close behind at 63.4%; and CMU Tepper School of Business (60.2%), Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management (53.8%), and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School (43.8%).
“It’s definitely one for the books,” Danielle Richie, senior associate director of MBA admissions and student recruitment at Kenan-Flagler, said of the 2019-2020 cycle. “We increased the size of the class because we had so many strong, quality candidates that we really wanted to build a diverse class out of the increased pool.”
A BIG YEAR FOR 21 OF THE 25 TOP U.S. MBA PROGRAMS
Data from schools in Poets&Quants‘ top 25 last year showed year-over-year declines in all but two schools, and declines across the board going back three cycles, to 2016-2017. This year that slide was reversed at all but four schools.
The top 10 business schools (as ranked by P&Q) combined saw a drop of about 3,400 MBA applicants, a 5.9% falloff to 53,907 candidates, for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle (versus 57,311 a year earlier). Last year, that number dropped still further, to 50,529, a decline of 3,378 apps, or 6.3%. But in 2019-2020 — aided in most cases by additional weeks of prep time for late applicants — nine of the top 10 schools saw increases, with only Stanford GSB dropping (by 18 applications). Total for the 10 schools — Harvard Business School, Stanford, Chicago Booth School of Business, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business, UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business, and Yale School of Management — was 57,197, slightly less than four years ago.
Among the M7, the elite of the elite, Northwestern Kellogg’s massive 54% increase outpaced the other six B-schools for the 2019-2020 admissions cycle (see table above). In comparison, MIT Sloan saw a 22% rise, Wharton a 21% jump, Columbia an 18% increase, and Chicago Booth an 11% boost. All five schools reported record apps. Even with apps essentially flat at Harvard and Stanford, which did not extend their admissions rounds, the M7 as a group had its best app season yet, jumping 14.5% from last year and 3.3% from the high point of 2016-2017.
Deferments — particularly for international students, for whom coronavirus presents additional risks — meant that enrollment increases remain a year away for some schools. But not at Northwestern Kellogg.
“We saw a surge in demand from impressive applicants and more people chose to come to Kellogg than we expected during this uncertain time,” says Kate Smith, Kellogg’s assistant dean of admissions and financial aid. Smith’s school grew its two-year MBA class by 85, an 18% increase. “We are thrilled to be welcoming a larger class of 559 students this year. This is a tremendous endorsement of our unique strengths: Kellogg thrives on developing empathetic leaders who can navigate periods of disruption precisely like this one.”
THE BIG TURNAROUNDS
The biggest turnarounds came further down the rankings. At USC Marshall, ranked No. 19 by P&Q, apps jumped to 3,159 from 1,899, after the school added about two months to its final round (succeeded by Marshall’s customary rolling admissions period). At No. 25 Rice University, after extending its round-three deadline by 60 days for international applicants and 75 days for domestic, the Jones School reported a 63% jump in total applications, drawing nearly 400 more apps for a total of 1,021 after reporting 625 in 2018-2019. As a result, Rice Jones enrolled its biggest MBA class in at least 20 years, with 174 students, up 63% from just 107 last year. At Georgetown, ranked 24th, the McDonough School of Business got about a 9% boost in apps last cycle, but already reports a round 1 jump of 40% this fall. At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, extending round three by 99 days resulted in a wild 364% jump in MBA apps for the round, which ended up giving the school a 37.7% increase overall.
“I’ve been doing this for about 25 years now and this was certainly the most challenging admissions cycle — for a lot of different reasons,” says Evan Bouffides, director of MBA admissions at Marshall. “It was a lot of late nights and weekend work. It was a long cycle and like many schools we extended our application deadline, which certainly had a lot to do with the number of applications that we got.”
One of the biggest turnarounds came at Carnegie Mellon University, where the Tepper School of Business saw a bounce-back that exceeded its previous record for apps in one cycle. CMU Tepper’s received 2,094 apps for the Class of 2022, up more than 60% in a year, and upped its number of admits by more than 30. However, because it granted more than 60 deferments, the school actually will have a much smaller MBA class of around 141, down by nearly 60 from last year.
But in the next two years, the students who deferred in 2020 will join the Tepper MBA, says Kelly R. Wilson, executive director of masters admissions.
“We offered students who couldn’t come to campus the opportunity to attend remotely or defer for 1-2 years,” Wilson tells P&Q. “For those wanting an in-person experience, a deferral was the chosen option. Not surprisingly, most deferrals are international students. That said, 28% of the incoming class is international students. We have recently learned that a number of international candidates have been successful in obtaining their student visa and will be moving to Pittsburgh.”
See the next page for a table of the last four years of applications at the top 25 U.S. business schools.