For decades, the United States has been the proverbial melting pot of gold for prospective MBA students around the world.
But will international MBA applicants now put the brakes on their aspirations to attend business school in the US? That’s the $105,265 question, or the estimated cost to attend Wharton for the first year.
In November and December 2016, GMAC conducted a survey to gauge the impact of the 2016 US presidential election on non-US candidates decisions to study in the United States.
Nearly 40% of respondents indicated that the election vote made them less likely to study in the US.
Of particular note, prospects with higher (self-reported) GMAT scores were more negatively affected by the US election vote. 51% with scores 700 or higher indicated that the vote has made them less likely to study in the US versus 35% for those scoring 600-690 and 27% for those scoring 500-590.
It's been three months since the study was conducted and only time will tell what will transpire. However, there are already some signals. Marcelo Barros, author of The International Advantage Get Noticed. Get Hired! says that the US is going through a “Hire American” phase.
Still the Golden Ticket?
“We are getting direct questions from prospective students on whether we see H1-B visa sponsorship offers decreasing by the time the candidate is finished with their MBA,” said Jennifer Ninh, Director of Recruitment of Full-Time MBA Programs at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business.
“We are interviewing international candidates at some of the top global consulting and banking firms in their home country,” added Ninh. “They are wondering if they give up their job and pursue what is usually the ‘golden ticket’ - as one candidate called a US MBA – will it all be for nothing?”
This new paradigm increases anxiety for already anxious applicants. A German applicant, who is deciding between a top-20 MBA program in the US and Europe, expressed his reservations about attending business school in the States:
“Taking a huge student loan is a tremendous risk already and since November the financial risk is multiplied by political risk. Who knows what will happen to the H1B-program? I am also not sure if I want to live in a more and more divided country in which Trump's policies will contribute to an ever more unequal society.
“That being said, I might still go for the US. It is certainly the best b-school education in the world, with a stellar reputation and (still) tons of job opportunities.”
Barros agrees. “Anything is still technically possible in the US This is still the best country out there to turn dreams into realities, though international students are questioning more and more if that is still the case.”
Dr. Christian Teeter, an assistant professor of business and director of the MBA program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles (pictured below), describes the benefits of attending business school in the US.
“The United States remains the largest economy in the world. As such, foreign nationals seeking graduate business education benefit greatly from education in the US, given our strategic focus on environmental scanning, the importance of culture and power, and the other traditional skillsets prevail within a MBA program.”
Business Schools are like the Stock Market
Still, it is a challenging recruitment year for admissions directors who are recruiting incoming classes for this year and the next one.
The stock market doesn’t like uncertainty and you could say that business schools are right up there with the Bowling Green Bull. It’s difficult to forecast student numbers, formulate class composition and allocate marketing spend when there are wild swings in economic and political forces at play.
Should you attend more or fewer recruitment fairs in China? Should you spend more or less on digital advertising in India? The questions add up and the answers aren’t always crystal clear.
One strategy is to think of your marketing and recruitment plan as a constantly evolving “work-in-progress” rather than something you “complete” once a year.
Segmenting the Market and Targeted Outreach
Ninh said she had a “pretty typical” recruitment plan in the past, including traveling abroad to fairs. Now, the Moore School (pictured above) is doing more:
“We started segmenting and sending targeted messages to certain students based on their home country and shift messages to meet more price sensitive or more ranking sensitive regions.”
Going forward, Ninh plans to work on targeted students that have an undergraduate degree from the US because they have already navigated the visa process, and will likely see the process as less risky.
According to Barros, schools need to speak objectively with international students about their post-graduation employment options in the United States, and they should provide data that clearly shows the placement rates of international students for US jobs from previous classes.
Another strategy some schools are taking is the partner approach. At Mount Saint Mary’s University, there is a special focus on individual outreach to contacts in China for example. Such outreach has increased inquiries to the MBA.
Amanda Barth, Director of MBA Admissions at the Mason School of Business at The College of William and Mary, acknowledges that it’s more important than ever to have the right team member for international recruitment opportunities. “An ambassador who is culturally competent and knowledgeable about global business will have much more success than someone who is not experienced in this space,” she adds.
German applicant Frederick Schwarzmaierm, who lives in a Doha, Qatar, is now a member of the William & Mary MBA Class of 2019 precisely for this reason. He had worked with Associate Director of MBA Admissions Tanja Wilhelmi, an alumna of the program who is also German, and could relate to an international student’s perspective on a personal level. Barth, who treated Frederick to dinner in Doha during her recruitment trip in the Gulf Cooperation Council, is convinced that cross-cultural sensitivities and individual attention from her entire team “sealed the deal.”
Yet new marketing techniques or relationship-building strategies may not be enough. The Penn State Online MBA is one example of a program that embarked on a “kitchen remodelling” approach to international student recruitment. A program redesign will launch in fall 2017, and international students are one group who will benefit from the new program structure.
“Knowing that our students are busy professionals, often with frequent business travel demands, we know that flexibility is absolutely critical in choosing an MBA,” says Stacey Dorang Peeler, Managing Director of the Penn State Online MBA. “We reduced the residency requirement from two weeks to one.”
In addition, Dorang Peeler noted that school added a third intake each year so students have more choice: a fall, spring, or summer start.
It’s a smart strategy. After all, why is there typically only one entry point per year? The message to prospect is: “you need to be ready when we are” instead of “we’re ready when you are.”
Although there is plenty of ambiguity to go around, one thing is certain. In the current climate, admissions directors in US business schools are finding themselves in the business of risk management as well as recruitment.