There were 6,971 applicants to Columbia Business School in 2020. In 2021, that number declined to 6,535; by 2022, there were just 6,177.
NYU Stern School of Business reported a 10% decline from its previous cycle. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s full-time MBA program saw a 14% decrease for its incoming class of 2024. UCLA Anderson School of Management saw a 20% drop, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business had 9% fewer applicants. (Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in New York bucked the trend, with its applicants growing by 21%.)
But while the numbers may be concerning, there could be a simple explanation, says David White, founding partner and MBA admissions consultant with Menlo Coaching. Last year and 2020 were extraordinary years for MBA applications for several reasons, he says.
“Some universities extended deadlines or waived GMAT/GRE requirements due to COVID, and applicants worried about losing their jobs due to COVID-related layoffs,” he says. “As those factors return to normal, applications will return to pre-COVID levels.”
In addition, the U.S. unemployment rate is at 3.5%, leading some prospective applicants to remain employed rather than take a break for business school.
In the meantime, some programs are taking practical steps to encourage more applicants.
In 2020, for example, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management launched an MBAi program to combine traditional MBA courses with those about artificial intelligence, targeting would-be AI professionals who might have assumed a traditional MBA wasn’t relevant to them, White says.
And in August of this year, Harvard Business School announced it would provide more full-tuition scholarships, now covering approximately 10% of its student body.
Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign increased its portfolio of digital commerce offerings to attract a wider audience of learners, says Nerissa Brown, associate dean of graduate programs.
Gies added an online Master of Science in Management (iMSM) and is launching a suite of online graduate certificates across several business specializations. It also launched two certificates in strategic leadership and management and accounting data analytics in August, with a third certificate in digital marketing launching in spring 2023.
Brown says the decline in applicants is simply cyclical.
“Historically, we have seen a drop in graduate business applications when the economy and job market is strong, which is likely what we are seeing now,” Brown says. “On the flip side, applications tend to soar during economic downturns or recessions.”
Gies says on-campus programs are also affected by international visa disruptions, an issue the school is still seeing coming out of the pandemic.
One silver lining for students: Due to a decline in applicants, acceptance rates are increasing. At Columbia, for example, the acceptance rate was 22.1% in 2022, compared with 16.2% in 2020.