There were 6,971 applicants to Columbia Business School in 2020. In 2021, that number dropped to 6,535; by 2022, there were only 6,177.
The NYU Stern School of Business reported a 10% decline from its previous cycle. The full-time MBA program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania saw a 14% decline for its incoming class of 2024. UCLA’s Anderson School of Management saw a 20% drop, and the Ross School of Business from the University of Michigan had 9% fewer applicants. . (The Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in New York bucked the trend, with its applicants growing by 21%.)
But while the numbers may be concerning, there could be a simple explanation, says David White, founding partner and MBA admissions consultant for Menlo Coaching. Last year and 2020 were banner years for MBA applications for a number of reasons, he says.
“Some colleges extended deadlines or waived GMAT/GRE requirements due to COVID, and applicants worried about losing their jobs due to COVID-related layoffs,” he says. “As those factors return to normal, apps will return to pre-Covid levels.”
Additionally, the US unemployment rate is 3.5%, leading some potential applicants to remain employed rather than take a break to go to business school.
Meanwhile, some programs are taking practical steps to encourage more applicants.
In 2020, for example, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management launched a MBA program combine traditional MBA courses with those on artificial intelligence, targeting potential AI professionals who might have assumed a traditional MBA wasn’t relevant to them, says White.
And in August of this year, Harvard Business School announced that it would award more full-tuition scholarships, which now cover about 10% of its student body.
Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has increased its portfolio of digital commerce offerings to appeal to a broader audience of students, says Nerissa Brown, associate dean for graduate programs.
Gies added an online Master of Science in Management (iMSM) and is launching a suite of online graduate certificates in various business specializations. She also launched two certificates in strategic leadership and accounting data management and analysis in August, and a third certificate in digital marketing will launch in spring 2023.
Brown says the decline in applicants is simply cyclical.
“Historically, we’ve seen a drop in graduate business applications when the economy and job market are strong, which is probably what we’re seeing now,” says Brown. “On the other hand, applications tend to skyrocket during recessions or economic downturns.”
Gies says that on-campus programs are also affected by international visa disruptions, an issue the school is still seeing as a result of the pandemic.
One silver lining for students: Due to declining applicants, acceptance rates are on the rise. At Columbia, for example, the acceptance rate was 22.1% in 2022, compared to 16.2% in 2020.
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