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Foreign Enrollment Surges at U.S. B-Schools

Renewed confidence and hopefulness is beginning to replace the hesitation and wariness that international applicants have felt the past few years when considering U.S. business schools. At the top 20 U.S. full-time MBA programs this fall, international enrollment is starting to inch back up to levels not seen since the economic downturn hit, according to data collected by Bloomberg Businessweek. Average international enrollment at those schools is now 33.4 percent, up from 30.2 percent at the height of the economic crisis, when visa and financing issues prevented many international applicants from enrolling.

“I don’t think the U.S. seems as unfriendly to international applicants anymore, which is great,” says Christine Sneva, director of admissions and financial aid at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, where international enrollment jumped from 22 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 34 percent this year. “It just seems like a certain level of optimism has returned for international students.”

It’s a shift in attitude that appears to be rippling throughout U.S. graduate business programs, according to a report released this fall by the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington (D.C.) group that represents more than 500 universities. In the past few years, U.S. business schools have been facing increased competition for top foreign students from European, Canadian, and Asian schools, but the tide may be turning. This fall, the largest increase in total international graduate enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities occurred in business, which had a 6 percent gain following no growth in 2010, the report showed. That surge was the largest increase in enrollment in the graduate business school sector since 2007, says Nathan Bell, the council’s director of research and policy analysis. Graduate business enrollment for the 2011 incoming class grew even more, he notes, rising 9 percent, up from a 2 percent increase the year before.


One reason schools are seeing more foreign applicants could be that the student F-1 visa approval rate has gone up, thanks to a push by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the past two years to get more students to come study in the U.S., says David Ware, an immigration law attorney. In the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2010, the most recent information available, 385,210 F-1 student visas were issued, up from 331,208 the previous year, a 16 percent increase, according to State Dept. data.

“I think we are beginning to win a lot of these students back. For many of them, their first choice was the U.S., and they were only going to the U.K. or Canada as a second choice,” Ware says. “Now that visas are more readily available, that definitely would have a relationship to the uptick.”

China, one of the top three countries sending graduate students to the U.S., is responsible for much of the surge in enrollment in U.S. graduate schools. Total first-time enrollment from China in all graduate programs was up 21 percent this year, its sixth consecutive year of double-digit increases, according to the Council of Graduate Schools report. Not surprisingly, 39 percent of two-year, full-time MBA programs in 2011 reported that China was their largest increasing source of foreign applicants, according to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the Reston (Va.) group that administers the GMAT test for business-school applicants. Women from China, Taiwan, and Vietnam are driving much of the increase and currently outnumber men in East Asia taking the GMAT exam.

Many of these students are coming to the U.S. to get their MBAs, hoping to return to their home countries and fast-track their careers at a multinational company, says Shantanu Dutta, vice-dean for graduate programs at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. The school offers a one-year international MBA program in which 75 percent of the students hail from Asia, he says. “These countries are becoming wealthier, and more students than ever can now can afford to come to the U.S.,” Dutta says. “They are more confident about the economy back home, and there is a lot of high energy and enthusiasm.”


At Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, international students made up 36 percent of this year’s entering class, up from 26 percent in the 2009-10 school year. The school reports that applications from China jumped 43 percent in 2011 over the previous year. Says Admissions Director Jim Holmen: “That’s a huge jump.” The University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business experienced a similar surge. International enrollment jumped from 31 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 37 percent for the most recent entering class. That’s a positive sign, which “could signal renewed confidence by international students” in attending U.S. business schools, says Stephanie Fujii, Haas’s director of admissions.

Anya Chang, a second-year MBA student from Taiwan at the Johnson School, says she considered only top U.S. business schools for her MBA, because of their strong reputations back home and the networking opportunities they’d offer her. “Cornell is a very famous household name in my country, so that will give me more prestige back home and help me with international networking.”

The Middle East (including Turkey) is another region contributing to the boom in international enrollment at U.S. graduate programs. First-time graduate enrollment from the Mideast for all program types was up 14 percent this year, following a 7 percent increase in 2010 and 22 percent in 2009, according to the CGS report. Efrat Swissa, a first-year MBA student, left her job in Israel as a research and design team leader at a technology startup to attend Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, where she is now pursuing her dream of becoming a consultant.

“I know that coming here would not only give me the experience and the network I need, but also help me make a career switch, which is pretty much impossible in my country,” says Swissa.


Some oil-rich countries in the Middle East are also experiencing a boom of interest in business education, with many of these students considering U.S. MBA programs. From 2006 to 2010, the number of GMAT scores sent to business programs worldwide by citizens of Saudi Arabia jumped 191 percent, to 3,036, while those from Iran jumped 182 percent, to 2,344, according to GMAC data. To capitalize on this momentum, some U.S. schools have intensified their recruitment efforts in the Middle East. The Johnson School hosts private recruiting events in the United Arab Emirates and Israel, has active alumni clubs in Tel Aviv and Dubai, and has created scholarship programs for top students from the region, says Johnson’s Sneva.

The school has been able to attract students such as Rajive Keshup, a second-year MBA student from Dubai, who worked as a regional account director in the Dubai office of AT&T (T). When it came time to apply to business school, he says he considered MBA programs in the Middle East for “about 30 seconds” before turning his attention to U.S. schools, which he felt would offer him the best global brand and network to serve as springboards for his career. It’s already paying off. He has job offers from a top global management consulting firm, a sovereign wealth fund, and a branch of a Fortune 500 company, he says.

“As the Middle East grows and matures and the business issues become more complex and on a par with global business standards, I believe the MBA degree will hold and unlock even more value,” he says.

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Damast is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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