MBA Admissions

As Applications Flag, U.S. B-Schools Hit the Road


As Applications Flag, U.S. B-Schools Hit the Road

Photograph by Rob Melnychuk/Corbis

U.S. business schools are working harder than ever to attract domestic candidates to their full-time MBA and other graduate business programs as the economic recovery continues to sputter along and test takers remain cautious about the decision to go to business school.

The latest data available from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) indicate that the number of U.S. applicants taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)—a leading indicator of B-school application trends—has been on a steady decline for the past two years, after the number of tests taken globally hit an record high in 2009. U.S. applicants who sat for the GMAT in the testing year ended June 30, 2011, numbered 140,085, down nearly 8 percent from the year before. The number of domestic students who took the GMAT last year was the fewest in five years.

Not surprisingly, the number of GMAT score reports sent to U.S. schools from domestic applicants is down. In 2011, U.S. test takers sent 397,509 score reports to U.S. schools, a dip of nearly 10 percent from the 2010 testing year, hitting another five-year low, the data show.

Michelle Sparkman-Renz, GMAC’s director of research communications, says she is reluctant to read too much into the data until GMAC releases its application numbers for testing year 2012 in October, but she is optimistic the trend will reverse itself as employer optimism rebounds. “I’m not sure it is a pulse of anything today,” she says.

In the face of declining domestic applications, U.S. business schools are ramping up their recruiting schedules and advertising campaigns, trying to raise awareness about their full-time MBA programs and make the case to applicants to apply to business school this fall.

Peter von Loesecke, chief executive and managing director of MBA Tour, which organizes admissions events with leading business schools in major cities, says about 10 percent more U.S. business schools joined his most recent domestic tour circuit in July. Schools that in the past may have visited only three or four cities are now visiting as many as eight, with many top-ranked schools hitting the road as well, he says. For example, MIT’s Sloan School of Management did all eight U.S. MBA Tour stops this year, the Wharton School ramped up the number of U.S. cities it visited from two to three, and Harvard Business School recently joined the U.S. tour, he said. Pre-registration at the MBA Tour’s July events in the U.S. was down slightly this year, though attendance has been strong, he says.

“There is a very strong interest from U.S. schools in our domestic students, probably stronger than our international tours,” says von Loesecke. “The schools are out there actively recruiting, and we’re seeing the expansion of the number of programs that want to send a school representative on the road with us.”

One of the reasons schools may be hitting the road with more vigor this year is that a number of leading business schools say their applications have declined in 2012—a trend that directly affects school selectivity, a key benchmark measured by many business school rankings. Harvard Business School received about 9,000 applications for the incoming MBA class, but applications were down 4 percent over last year, a school spokesman says. An article in the Wall Street Journal in May noted that applications this year slid 7.9 percent at MIT’s Sloan School and less than 2 percent at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

Marci Armstrong, the associate dean of graduate programs at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business in Dallas, says applications at her school have been increasing the past few years. Both domestic and international applications were down this year, though she declines to specify how much until official school figures are released this fall.

Cox has a multipronged strategy to ensure that applications for its flagship full-time MBA program remain strong going into the next application cycle and beyond, Armstrong says. The school is planning to build a “pipeline” to the MBA program through its popular master of science in accounting program and a new master of science in finance program the school is launching this fall. Eventually the hope is that the younger applicants who go through these programs will eventually return to the school for a full-time MBA, boosting application numbers, she says. In addition, the school has expanded the number of MBA fairs and forums it attends in the U.S. In addition to visiting the cities Cox usually hits on the road, admissions staff from Cox will be visiting such new cities this fall as Salt Lake City, Denver, and Cincinnati. “We’re doing more domestic travel than we have ever done before,” says Armstrong.

Lynda Oliver, Cox’s assistant dean of marketing and communications, says one of the school’s most powerful weapons will be a Dallas advertising agency, Slingshot, that the school has hired. The agency will help the school raise awareness of the school’s MBA program among potential students, millennials in particular, as well as work to increase the number of yearly applicants by deploying a sophisticated digital and social media strategy for Cox.

“We have a lot of tough competition, and even though we enjoy a nice spot in the rankings, we still don’t have the luxury of some of the better-known schools, particularly on the East Coast,” Oliver says. “We have to work a little bit harder to make sure we increase awareness of our school.”

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Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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