Shelter from the Storm: Is an MBA a Refuge from the Crisis?

We asked business school recruiters what the downturn (really) means for applicants.

It's the big story this year in the world of business schools - global economy down, MBA applications up.

If you're applying to b-school this year, you've probably already read something about a spike in applications and more selective admissions committees. The logic goes like this: people who can't get jobs or promotions during the current global economic downturn are seeking to "wait out" the crisis by spending a year or two in business school.

I asked around at a recent "MBA Day" hosted by e-fellows.net in Munich, where recruiters from 18 European business schools were on hand. While many recruiters confirmed that they've received more MBA applications than last year, many also sense anxiety among applicants about whether now is really the right time.

"I think people are very concerned about what they are going to do once they leave the program," says Heather Spiro of Manchester Business School. "So it's not only thinking about getting into business school, but increasingly getting out of business school."

"I would say the job market, particularly for international students, particularly those wanting to stay in the UK, is an increasing concern for applicants this year," says Spiro. "Economies go in cycles. They go up, they go down. We tell applicants take that into consideration when deciding on whether or not to do an MBA."

"A lot of people want to come out of this recession 'skilled-up,'" says Tim Navin-Jones of Cass Business School in London. 

"I think the problem is that nobody knows how long the recession is going to take place, and that's why a lot of people are applying, but they aren't quite as committed to actually putting their deposit down as last year," he says.

Cautious

Oliver Matthews of the University of St. Gallen believes that economic turmoil might, in fact, deter some prospective students from applying. Matthews says he has not seen a sharp increase in applications this year due to the crisis.

"If there's a downturn in the market and you've got a job, you don't let go of it until you know when the market is going to pull up again," says Matthews. "And then maybe you'll see an application spike, but only when the end is in sight."

"People are cautious," adds Matthews. "Nobody wants to take on a huge amount of debt when they don't know there's a job at the end; especially on a one-year program."

According to a few business schools, companies with tightening budgets are also becoming more reluctant to sponsor students for Executive MBA (EMBA) programs, which means that students must secure their own funding for their studies.

Some MBA programs are plainly happy that more applications will allow them to be more selective this year. Some schools, such as HEC Paris, say that they will still try to keep a desirable mix of students from different countries and backgrounds. In other words, don't expect the next incoming MBA classes to consist entirely of finance refugees from London and New York.

Prospective students I spoke to at the MBA Day also mentioned the recession, but nobody cited it as their primary reason for applying to business school.

"I've only read that there are a lot of applications, and that many people want to study now because of the financial crisis," says Mari Enzensberger, a 28-year-old management consultant who attended the event.

"I've wanted to do this for awhile - not because of the finance crisis - but now there's more competition because of it," she added.

Enzensberger was one of the dozens of prospective students who had one-to-one interviews with business school recruiters during the MBA Day. The event also included Q&A sessions and an informal meet-and-greet session. 

This year, some 130 prospective students attended the MBA Day in Munich, more than last year's event. Some attendees were just beginning to explore the option of an MBA, while many others were further along - they're now decided where to apply. 

"I suppose it's possible that business schools will benefit from the economic crisis," says Christian Lippl of e-fellows.net of a possible application spike. "For people who already know they want to do an MBA anyway, maybe they want to use this moment." 

"Perhaps they are thinking if the economy will be recovering for one or two years anyway, why not take this time to get ahead, get this qualification, and when the crisis is over, then perhaps it is easier to get a job."

Or, as another prospective student mentioned, people are just not sure what to do with their money these days. As investments everywhere look iffy, perhaps the best investment is in one's own career. 

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