MBA Demand ‘Not a Fad’ as Schools Report Second Year of Application Growth

New data show international students rebound as women and underrepresented minorities flock to full-time MBA programs around the globe

MBA applications surged at the onset of the pandemic as the economic shock of coronavirus sent people in their droves back to school to upgrade their credentials and land a better job as the economy recovers. And the latest figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC, the entrance test administrator) show that the rush of demand in 2020 was not a fad, as the volume of applications grew 0.4 percent last year.

“Candidates looked for alternative career options during the COVID-induced recession and business schools introduced more flexible admissions policies, resulting in soaring application volumes last year,” says Sangeet Chowfla, president and CEO of GMAC.

The question was whether this was a fleeting event caused by the pandemic or the start of a new uptick in applications. “In this context, the 2021 application cycle indicates that the surging demand for graduate business education is not a passing fad but has staying power beyond 2020,” says Chowfla.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School MBA program has seen an increase in full-time applications since the onset of the pandemic, but the increase in part-time applications has been much greater. “In 2020 and 2021, we doubled our part-time intake,” says Jochen Wirtz, vice-dean of MBAs.

He expects to see this uptick continue into 2022, as more prospective students look to future-proof their careers and gain valuable skills to better equip and position themselves in a post-pandemic world.

Wirtz says: “We’re seeing a mix of motivations among our candidates — from those looking to switch from industries badly hit by the pandemic, to those looking to gain the knowledge, skills and network to break into exciting emerging industries such as fintech, impact investing, or sustainable energy.”

Several business schools reported record-breaking career outcomes last year, despite the pandemic, including vast salary increases and widespread job offers in finance, consulting and technology.

Will the MBA application numbers continue to rise?

But some MBA course administrators are more cautious in their 2022 outlook for applications, despite a second successive year of high demand in 2021. “Our full-time MBA saw a second year of volume growth during the pandemic last year,” says David Simpson, MBA admissions director at London Business School. “We don’t necessarily assume these increases will continue through 2022 and beyond, but numbers are currently well above pre-pandemic levels again.”

International candidates in particular flocked to business schools in higher numbers last year, suggesting that student mobility is returning after years of unwelcoming immigration policies around the world.

For London Business School, the introduction of the UK government’s two-year graduate work visa “definitely contributed to a growth in MBA applications” says Simpson. “I believe many people are keen to get out and see the world again after a really tough period of time.”

Weighted absolute year-on-year change in application volumes from international students shows an increase of 4.1 percent compared to a decline of 3.8 percent from domestic candidates, according to GMAC.

But some administrators suggest that COVID travel restrictions will continue to create issues for the global business education industry. “While the pandemic continues to pose challenges to attending an MBA program abroad, schools are encouraged to see applications from international students rebound this year,” says Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at Michigan Ross in the US.

She says it’s still too early in the application cycle to make accurate predictions about future MBA demand. “We are excited about the applications we have received, but we also recognize that many schools set records last year, including at Ross where we saw over a 50 percent application increase over the previous year.”

The application growth was driven by women and under-represented minority groups, with three in five full-time two-year MBA programs reporting an increase in applications from female candidates compared to two in five programs reporting growth from male candidates, said GMAC.

“Business school learning is experiential and relies heavily on interactions, discussions and cohort and alumni networks; this is impossible without a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds,” says Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD in France, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. “As student mobility gradually returns, the diversity it brings to a classroom will only benefit and enrich campus life.”

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