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Are Business Schools Becoming Less International?

Applications from domestic students to business schools are booming, while more international students are deferring their studies. So are business schools becoming less international?

Mon Dec 7 2020


Business schools have received a surge of applications from domestic candidates amid uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domestic applications to US schools increased by 30% in 2020 while international applications increased by 14.7%, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council's (GMAC) Application Trends Survey. In Europe, applications from domestic candidates saw a whopping 50% increase. 

Meanwhile, many international candidates have deferred, choosing to delay their studies by a year. Internationals are three-times more likely to defer their application than domestic students, according to GMAC.

Business school candidates are opting for certainty amid uncertainty, banking on programs in familiar territory, where they are unlikely to be disrupted by travel restrictions. What’s unclear are the implications of this shift towards domestic-focused business education.

Are business schools becoming less international, and if so, what does this mean for applicants? 

How Domestic Applications Have Increased

Reasons behind increasing domestic numbers

In October 2019, GMAC warned of a rising global trend towards nationalism, and its implications for business education. In the Early Warning Signals white paper, former GMAC chair and Duke Fuqua dean Bill Boulding wrote: 'Mobility is the oxygen of innovation.'

Following this, an open letter, signed by CEOs and business schools deans in the US, was issued to president Trump, warning of the potentially catastrophic economic impact of restricting immigration.

In the US, international students have faced battles over student visas over the course of the Trump presidency, including suspensions of the F1 and H1B visas, as well as proposed time limits

International mobility has also been severely restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many students opted to stay in their home countries rather than travel abroad. 

European business master's, for example, saw a strong increase in applications fuelled by a domestic increase. "A lot of bachelor’s students who had planned on international travel or internships in Asia or the US stayed in Germany,” says Hannah Page, admissions manager at WHU Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany. 

“Often, they would go on and do a master’s program somewhere else, but with international travel more difficult, we saw a big increase in undergraduate students staying on.” 

Implications of a declining international mix

With increases in domestic applications, and high deferral rates for international candidates, business school classes in the coming year are likely faced with a classroom more heavily weighted towards domestic candidates. 

There may too be cause for concern for lower-ranked business schools. While increases in domestic applications remained consistent across all business schools, international applications were far lower in schools ranked outside of the top 50 (in the US News and World Report Rankings). This could see a migration to the top for international candidates, becoming increasingly concentrated at top schools and scarcer at regional schools. 

Tim Westerbeck, president of strategic higher education consulting firm Eduvantis, reflects on the implications of less international business school classrooms. 

“Business schools make the case that if you don’t have a diverse student body, you don’t have an experience that’s reflective of the world. How can you teach someone to be a global business leader in a global business world if you only have domestic students in your classroom?” he says.

Stephen Taylor, a research director at admissions marketing consultancy Liaison International, sees a missed opportunity for students who won’t be exposed to the same diversity of thought. 

“There’s an obligation as institutions to bring in a diverse set of thought and experience. If you pull international students out of that mix, or diminish them, you have fundamentally shifted one of the primary value propositions of business schools.“

Business schools can still be international

Diminishing international representation in the short term, however, doesn’t necessarily impact that value proposition of business school. 

“While internationals remain important for enrolment and the experience at business school, the experience itself is not getting diminished because schools are thinking and innovating fast to make sure that experience is not compromised,” insists Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research at GMAC. 

For one, business schools still employ international faculty. These teachers bring insights and learnings from around the world to the classroom, offering that diverse perspective which is crucial for global leaders. 

This is combined with access to international alumni and outside speakers. COVID-19 has actually enhanced these virtual connections to professionals, who can speak or provide advice remotely from anywhere in the world. In this sense, a post-COVID Zoom boom has increased the international scope of business school. 

The GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey demonstrates this continued confidence from employers in business schools to produce globally-minded leaders. Over 40% of employers, even after COVID-19, have confidence in business school graduates to be able to handle a complex global business environment. 

As for lower-ranked schools, there could be some advantage in the current shift. These regionally-focused schools already draw mostly from a pool of domestic candidates. A growth in the domestic market would simply add to the size and quality of this pool.