MBA applications
International students are exploring MBA programmes outside the US. Source: Justin Heiman/Getty Images/AFP

Business schools outside the US are enjoying a soar in MBA applications from international students as top MBA programmes in the US take a tumble.

According to the Wall Street Journal, international MBA programmes, especially those in Europe and Canada, are seeing an increase in interest from prospective students who want to stay closer to home and from students in Asia and Latin America who want to avoid US business schools.

Schools and admissions coaches attribute the rise in international student interest to COVID-19 travel restrictions, higher tuition costs in the US and an American political climate marked by increased US-China tensions and disruptive immigration policies.

MBA programmes in the US were already showing signs of struggle in recent years; they saw a 14% drop in international students a year ago. Foreign students are important sources of university revenue and account for approximately 40% of all applicants to US business schools in 2019, and they often pay full tuition and fees, said WSJ.

COVID-19 and unfriendly immigration policies affect MBA applications

The Imperial College Business School in London said international applications for its September class jumped 55%, partly driven by an increase in applicants from Asia. Business school consulting firm Carrington Crisp said interest for prospective students considering Canada for their degree this year is up from 38% a year ago.

In Canada, Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business associate director of recruitment and admissions for the MBA programme Teresa Pires was quoted saying, “We are seeing candidates who would have traditionally looked at Ivy League schools in the US in the past. Because it may be harder to stay in the US, securing permanent residency, job security, they just feel like it’s a safer bet here.”

The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management vice dean of MBA programmes Joseph Milner told WSJ that its domestic applications increased this year, partly because of Canadian students’ willingness to stay closer to home. 

Overseas applications for its 2021 admissions cycle surged as many prospective students favour the country’s guaranteed work permit — compared with the US student visa system — which allows international graduates to work for any Canadian employer without the requirement of a job offer at the time of applying.

In the Netherlands, Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management director of MBA recruitment and admissions Brandon Kirby said the school saw a spike in MBA applications over the past several years from the Middle East, Thailand, the Philippines and parts of Latin America as students are attracted to the country’s visa system and its shorter, less expensive one-year MBA.

While top US business schools saw a spike in applications this year, many reported a sharp decline in foreign student numbers. The international student population at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School two-year MBA programme declined by 11% for the 2022 class from the 2021 class; the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business saw a decline of 9%. 

Schools note that some students are deferring their admission by a year or two rather than pay the full fees to attend online or partially online classes.

Travel restrictions due to the pandemic and visa restrictions on countries such as China and Brazil have made it harder for students to make it to the US, Peter Johnson, an assistant dean at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, told WSJ. Western Europe and Canada don’t share that same challenge, he said.

Many business schools have shifted to online learning for their MBA programmes in response to the pandemic. While interest in online US MBA programmes has grown this year, a Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) survey of prospective students said international candidates are still more likely to consider pursuing an in-person MBA closer to their home compared with online learning.

The value of an MBA education hasn’t waned; a key finding from a GMAC survey showed that despite disruption to the global economy and future of work due to the pandemic, the confidence of corporate recruiters in the skills and abilities of graduate management talent remains strong.

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