The MBA application process, known as a rigorous contest among prospective students, is now being likened to a competition as the top-ranking schools seek to lure away applicants who are applying to up to five institutions at a time.
Deans have gradually begun rolling out new, shorter and more sector-focused courses and online programs, while many schools have expanded the sizes of their MBA classes, which allows them to recruit a greater number of graduates. Last year’s incoming class at Harvard Business School increased in number from 913 to 932, while Stanford enrolled its largest ever class, and Chicago Booth also expanded its cohort.
This has prompted concerns that schools are sacrificing quality of education. Many students prefer smaller, more intimate class sizes, which offer a better professor-to-student ratio.
Managers preparing to send off business school applications next month are being tempted with a range of incentives, including more cash to help fund tuition and other fees.
Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions expert who runs a leading consultancy, described new scholarships as a “very powerful” incentive. “Price is steep and a big barrier for many,” she said.
Nurit Altura, a former admissions officer at Stanford who is now an admissions expert at InGenius Prep, said top-20 schools launching new programs could be a “play to entice applicants who are qualified and likely to attend top-ten schools”. “This is a merit play – trying to get the best people,” she added.
At the same time, tuition fee rises at a number of top US schools this year, building on a 37% rise in the MBA’s sticker price over the past six years, will likely make candidates more receptive to financial enticements.
There are numerous tuition fee scholarships now available for international students. Manchester Business School offers directly funded money to 25 of its MBA students. It recently launched a full £38,800 scholarship for EU or EEA residents. London Business School offers full-year scholarships for its MBA program – which costs about £64,000 – for specific citizens of countries including Australia and New Zealand, while the US’s Berkeley: Hass funds a $50,000 “diversity scholarship” for its MBA students.
At Surrey Business School in the UK, a new EMBA scholarship dished out £45,000 to one candidate, while two other candidates were each awarded 50% of that total, and the University of Sydney Business School recently advertised a $60,000 scholarship.
Meanwhile, leading Asian business schools, which have seen an increase in applications, say they are prepared to fund the brightest candidates. “If some people are really outstanding, we definitely give them full tuition scholarships,” said Sarah Feng, senior manager of CKGSB’s MBA program.
“We offer need-based scholarships, internship opportunities and loan programs to promising students,” said Dr. Wu Liansheng, MBA program director at the Guanghua School of Management.
The pool of candidates is also becoming more competitive. “The number of qualified applicants is on the rise, as women, who have historically been much less represented at business school, and international applicants, specifically Chinese and Korean, are entering the applicant pool at full speed,” said Nurit.
Several highly-ranked European business schools have said that they face more competition now that the application boom experienced during the financial crisis has waned.
“It’s a more competitive process – we have the same candidates applying to several schools,” says Pilar Vicente, senior associate director of admissions at Spain’s IE Business School.
Eric Lucrezia, Global MBA recruitment manager at ESSEC Business School, said: “Suddenly there are more choices in the rest of the world. It’s more competition for us.”
Promising students are not only a prize to be fought over by MBA admissions directors: they may be tempted away by other schools offering fast-track master programs, which have risen in popularity. Options now include online and distance learning, which threaten to revolutionize traditional business education.
Anna Bacigalupi, an admissions manager at Italy's MIP Politecnico di Milano, said: “We saw a big increase in interest towards specialist master’s [programs] after the crisis… Which do not require work experience.”
Carol Tunstall, former associate director of admissions at Wharton and InGenius Prep MBA admissions expert, thinks that an influx of programs to choose from has intensified competition.
Jeremy from mbaMission said: "The competition is intense. MBA programs are very competitive with each other – they are now competing to build out entrepreneurial ecosystems. One school announces a shared office space and the next announces seed funding or a new business plan competition. Top programs are always upping the ante to attract the best."
There has also been a trend of schools overhauling their MBA curriculums, which may be in response to a changing customer base.
“Business schools are constantly innovating to stay relevant, to remain competitive, and to climb the rankings,” said Carol. “I saw this first-hand at Wharton, which recently changed its curriculum in a big effort to attract more students.”
Jon Fuller, a senior admissions consultant at Clear Admit, predicts that the impact will be more pronounced with schools farther down the line (lower-ranked schools).
For some, recruiting tactics have been labelled as aggressive. For-profit Minnesota School of Business and its affiliate, Globe University, were sued last month by the Minnesota Attorney General.
The law suit alleged that the school had a “sales-oriented culture that places a premium on the enrolment of students” and that “representatives pressured some students to enrol during the sales meeting. The schools train representatives not to take ‘no’ for an answer”. Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business strongly denied the allegations in a press statement.
Nurit, however, insists that the competition among schools is just as much as a result of better candidates flocking to MBA programs. “With this rise in applications comes an increase in competition among the business school candidates,” she said. “Regardless of the number of applications, we are seeing a rise in the competitiveness of applicants around the world.”