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Business School Applications Sputter


(Corrects number of applications to MIT Sloan School of Management in third paragraph.)

The two-year boom in business school applications that accompanied the deteriorating economy appears to be over, with 12 top U.S. MBA programs now reporting that 2010 applications are flat or down compared with 2009, including the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile) in Philadelphia and the Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) at the University of California at Berkeley.

The slowdown at the top programs comes a year after applications dipped more broadly among global business schools surveyed by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the Reston (Va.) nonprofit that administers the entrance exam used by MBA programs. In 2009, GMAC reported that 64 percent of the 332 business schools surveyed had a year-over-year application increase in their two-year MBA programs, down from 80 percent in 2008. GMAC spokesman Sam Silverstein says "the boom in applications appears to be softening" and that the number of programs reporting increases will likely be down for the second consecutive year when the organization reports the results of its most recent survey later this month.

In past recessions, application volume increased as applicants sought refuge from the troubled economy in business school, only to drop again during the recovery, according to GMAC data. At the Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, applications are up 16 percent year-over-year, to 4,782, and are up more than 50 percent for the past three years. MBA Admissions Director Rod Garcia, however, says he does not expect the good times to last.

"I really think this is the high-water mark, and we won't experience this windfall that we're experiencing now," Garcia said in a telephone interview. "I think this is probably going to be it in terms of increases in applications. … The only question is, is it going to be a moderate decline or a big decline?"

Where Applications Are Already Tumbling

Of the top 30 full-time MBA programs surveyed by Bloomberg Businessweek, 10 reported declines in application volume averaging 6.1 percent, while 11 reported increases averaging 10.2 percent. Nine schools declined to supply information.

Schools where application volume is trending down include Wharton (down 9 percent, to 6,819), Haas (down 11 percent, to 3,626), and Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, N.Y., where applications fell 12 percent, to 2,002, the biggest percentage drop experienced by any program that provided information.

Officials from Wharton and Cornell say the recovery is to blame. As the economy stabilized, applications to Wharton dropped to normal levels from peaks experienced during the downturn, says Ankur Kumar, deputy director of MBA admissions at the school. "We are really normalizing to the level of applications we experienced before the events of the past two years."

Continuing Application Gluts

Some schools saw continued application growth. Washington University's Olin Business School (Olin Full-Time MBA Profile) in St.Louis was up 26 percent, to 1,531; Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile) in Durham, N.C., was up 21 percent, to 3,506; and Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) in Boston was up 5 percent, to 9,524.

Evan Bouffides, Olin's assistant dean for MBA admissions, attributed the glut of applications at his school to its No. 19 position in the 2010 U.S. News & World Report business school rankings, up from No. 22 in 2009 and No. 36 in 2005. Olin also eliminated its application fee this year and made its application easier to complete, requiring contact information for references instead of recommendation letters and reducing the number of required essays to one, Bouffides says. "How many essays do you need in order to assess a candidate," he asks.

While Fuqua reduced its $200 fee to $50 for students who attend an information session, Liz Riley Hargrove, Fuqua's associate dean for admissions, says the price cut didn't influence application volume. "If you come to a session to learn about Duke, we are also going to give you something," Hargrove says. She says the lower fee has not adversely affected the quality of Fuqua's applicant pool.

When the City Is a Draw

At the University of Washington's Foster School of Business (Foster Full-Time MBA Profile), No.27 in Bloomberg Businessweek's most recent full-time MBA ranking in 2008, MBA Admissions Director Erin Ernst says rankings did not have much to do with the Seattle school's 16 percent application increase this year, to 770. Instead she cited the completion this year of 135,000-square-foot Paccar Hall, the launch of a revamped website, and the growing appeal of the Seattle area.

Fuqua and Sloan, Nos. 8 and 9 in the Bloomberg Businessweek ranking, saw double-digit application increases as a result of heightened awareness of their programs in the U.S. and abroad, officials of the two schools say.

At Fuqua, Hargrove says, the school's global strategy has helped draw applicants from around the world. Fuqua has representatives in India, China, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and England, allowing it to conduct more recruiting internationally, Hargrove says, and foreign applications increased significantly from those areas as a result.

Sloan's Garcia says international applications to his school from China, India, and Korea—all countries where MIT's international partnerships have raised the school's profile—have been on the rise as well. "Asia is where the increase is happening," he says.

Tracer is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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