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MBA Applications Are Up Because the Job Market Is Down

Applications to American M.B.A. programs rose for the first time in five years, thanks in part to loosened admissions deadlines and students seeking places to ride out a shaky job market. Lower-ranked programs struggle to attract international students while top programs thrive. About 75% of schools ranked among the top 50 M.B.A. programs reported growing international applications.

U.S.-based students fueled the surge in applications for this fall’s programs as business schools extended application deadlines and loosened their standardized testing requirements amid the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report on hundreds of business programs. Higher-ranked schools reported the biggest application gains, particularly among the international students who have become critical to programs’ business models, according to a report from the nonprofit Graduate Management Admission Council released on Tuesday.

Students typically flock to business schools and other graduate programs during economic downturns to sit out a tough job market and gain credentials. M.B.A. program applications had fallen for five straight years because of a hot job market and high tuition costs. In the latest cycle, applications to U.S. business schools increased by 21%, according to GMAC.

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“As the economy was taking a U-turn from high growth to a complete screeching halt, that led to a lot of midcareer professionals to start hedging their careers,” said Rahul Choudaha, GMAC’s director of industry insights. “They see business schools as a chance to incubate from this uncertainty.”

Schools’ extended admissions deadlines—into July for some—gave prospective students who might have been laid off or furloughed in the first months of the pandemic a chance to apply to programs and begin classes weeks later. Some schools further eased the way by making optional the main B-school entrance exam.

Top M.B.A. programs including Columbia Business School and MIT’s Sloan School of Management reported higher application totals earlier this fall. A majority of elite programs noted rising interest from international students, with the gains less consistent for lower-ranked schools. On Tuesday, GMAC said about 75% of schools ranked in the top 50 reported growing international applications, while only 47% of schools ranked 51 to 100 and 40% of unranked programs did.

“The top-tier schools were not only holding higher appeal for domestic candidates but also holding the demand for international candidates. At least among the top 50 schools, we see that demand is holding quite strong,” Mr. Choudaha said. “This is still a competitive market. That bifurcation is becoming a lot more apparent because of the pandemic.”

A prolonged decline in international students could devastate schools outside the top tier because those students often pay full tuition, consultants say. Tuition at elite programs can cost roughly $200,000 once two years of living costs are factored in. Tim Westerbeck, president of higher-education consulting firm Eduvantis, said many schools have come to depend on these full-tuition-paying students.

“No doubt most schools have shifted their marketing to domestic students in this cycle,” Mr. Westerbeck said. “Even if you get a lot of applications and more students coming into the funnel, your cost of marketing probably went way up and you have to dish out more financial aid to get them to attend your school.”

Trump administration limits on student visas, as well as Covid-19 travel curbs, higher tuition costs in the U.S., and an American political climate marked by increased U.S.-China tensions have kept many international students away, schools and industry consultants say. International enrollment at top programs fell this fall at many programs as foreign students chose to defer. Overall, the deferral rate for all students climbed from 2% in 2019 to 6% in 2020, GMAC said.

Mr. Westerbeck said many schools are hoping President-elect Joe Biden might help bring back international student demand by easing certain kinds of visas. However, he said that some schools will face increased competition for global students amid the growth of high-quality programs outside the U.S.

John Delaney, dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University, said his school can still recruit enough international students in the short term, owing in part to its Washington, D.C., location. But he said an extended period of visa restrictions for students could send more of them to study in countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, or Australia on a more permanent basis.

“Some schools will have a real problem, the elite schools will be fine. We are in that middle slot of schools but in an attractive location. That may be enough, but who knows?” he said. “I feel comfortable about Washington, the same is true in New York and Boston, but it probably becomes more difficult in some other locations.”

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