MBA Surge: Why MBA Applicants Are Flocking To The Elite US B-Schools

The elite United States-based b-schools have reported staggering increases in applications. MBA hopefuls are drawn by an improving economy and renewed recruiting tactics.

In the United States, business education is booming. Admissions officers can hardly keep up with demand from the increasing number of budding business leaders

UCLA Anderson School of Management already had streams of prospective students filing forms for its MBA programs. But last year delivered an even bigger bumper crop. Full-time MBA applications at the school soared more than 20%. Further demand will be expected this year. The school has already climbed up to the 26 spot in some global MBA rankings.

Across the US, a wealthy pool of applicants willing to spend more on top programs is emerging. UCLA is just one of a few schools who have posted enormous increases in demand for its MBA programs.

The willingness of international students to look further afield and the healthy employer demand for domestic MBA applicants has seen the elite States schools oversupplied.

Demand is insatiable: at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School, full-time MBA applications surged 28%, and at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business applications similarly topped 20%.

“Traditionally [our brand] has been a weakness for us, so it’s been something we have worked to address,” said Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate dean of UNC’s MBA program.

“That includes things like crystallizing the brand message, formalizing brand elements and also being consistent with advertising about who we are.”

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business’ applications jumped nearly 10%. Applications at many schools have increased across the board; domestic applicants and international MBA prospects are seeking out degrees in the US.

Haas School of Business posted an increase of nearly 4% and at Harvard Business School, the US’s most prestige, 9,500 applicants tried their luck – up more than 2% on last year.

It’s an understandable increase. The rise has been driven by the country’s improving economy and increased confidence that domestic applicants will find MBA jobs after graduation.

The fortunes of these ambitious MBA graduates have been picked apart in a new survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). The firm provides the GMAT exam – the standard entry test to most top schools. The survey looked at how business school graduates view their programs and offers a snapshot of their early job search and career intentions.

US MBA students have already been employed in huge numbers. Some 57% of States-based MBAs received job offers before even graduating – more than European students.

“The job market for business school graduates has rebounded nicely since 2010, and employers in all sectors recognize they need the business skills and acumen these graduates bring,” said Gregg Schoenfeld, survey research director at GMAC.

An astonishing 60% of students on full-time two-year MBA courses have already banked jobs. That is 15% more hires than on one-year programs – which had a drop of 8% on last year – which are commonplace in Europe. Most elite schools in the US run longer, two-year programs.  

But there are concerns about the level of international students in the US being hired, who are employed in fewer numbers than domestic graduates.

The disparity can be seen in applications from foreign students. UNC's applications from non-citizens rose from 44% this year to comprise more than half of the total applicant pool. Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business notched a 30% increase in international applications as domestic entries remained flat.

But other US schools zeroed in on increasing the number of minority candidates on their MBA programs.

Yet States-based schools, who dominate traditional full-time MBA rankings, can console themselves with higher overall statistics.

The University of Washington's Foster School of Business is the type of school that will give MBA students cause for optimism.

It is not just the elites that are drawing huge applicant numbers. The school, which sits in the lower-half of most MBA rankings tables, posted a staggering 74% increase in applications this year.

Commentators point toward the school’s proximity to Seattle, regarded as a technology hub, for the increase in applications. Some of the biggest hiring droves can be witnessed in the tech sector. More than 60% of MBAs reported job offers in the industry, said GMAC, which accounted for 15% of all early offers.

Amazon, one of the world's biggest e-commerce companies, is regarded as a local firm in the state.

Those in tech, healthcare and manufacturing also received the biggest increases in salary compensation.

“Business school graduates shouldn't overlook alternative sectors, which are actively seeking MBA and other business school talent,” said GMAC CEO Gregg.

“This snapshot of the early job market for business school graduates demonstrates that graduate business degrees are useful in a wide variety of careers,” he added.

In Washington, McDonough’s focus has been on campus recruiting events. The once-monthly tours have been attracting up to 100 candidates. Despite the physical limitations, the school saw international applications grow 20%. Applications from US-based candidates rose 27%.   

Other business schools have been trying to boost minority application numbers. Fuqua runs a Weekend for Women, giving 80 female applicats a taster of MBA life. The effect on female candidates is profound.

Camille Wingo, a current Fuqua MBA student, said: “[I attended] Weekend for Women… when applying to business school two years ago – and seeing Fuqua’s commitment to women was one of the deciding factors.”

But research from The Economist may put the US application boom on ice. States-based schools are the most expensive. But data released last month showed that cheaper and shorter MBA programs offer the best return on investment.

The immediate return on investment is tiny. The US’s MBAs land jobs that are just a few notches above their previous careers. An MBA from Harvard offers less than a $10,000 increase in immediate post-MBA salary, according to The Economist data.

At elite US schools, it may not be payback time. European schools, led by France’s HEC Paris, offer the highest levels of return on tuition fees.

Meanwhile, schools and research firms have reported that international MBAs are employed in fewer numbers in the States. US employers are less willing to take a punt on graduates who require a work visa to stay in the country.

But applications to the elite show no signs of abating. For now, the US MBA education bandwagon will keep on chugging on.  

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