Sustainability and DEI Are Important to Prospective Business Students: Report

More than half of prospective business students said they wouldn't consider attending a school that doesn't prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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Updated on April 11, 2024
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  • Inclusion and sustainability are increasingly important to prospective business students, according to a new Graduate Management Admission Council survey.
  • Sixty-eight percent of prospective graduate business students said sustainability was important or very important to their academic experience.
  • More than half of prospective students, 57%, said they wouldn’t consider attending a school that doesn’t prioritize equity and inclusion.
  • Prospective students are also increasingly interested in STEM and AI.

Sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital values for prospective business students, according to a new survey.

A growing number of business schools have added sustainability to their master of business administration (MBA) curriculum in recent years, and some have even rolled out wholesale sustainability-focused degrees.

That growth in sustainability-focused curriculum reflects high student demand: A Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) survey showed that prospective students consider sustainability to be a key topic.

Almost three-quarters — 68% — of prospective graduate business students said sustainability was important or very important to their academic experience, according to the GMAC 2024 Prospective Students Survey.

The percentage of prospective students who say sustainability is important varieties by region:

  • 86% of students from Africa indicated that sustainability was important or very important in their MBA instruction
  • 74% of students from both Central and South Asia, and East and Southeast Asia said the same
  • 72% of students from Latin America
  • 69% of students from the Middle East
  • 65% of students from Eastern Europe
  • 62% of students from western Europe
  • 59% of students from the United States
  • and 55% of students from Canada

The 2024 survey of prospective students reveals that candidates expect graduate business education to help equip them to advance social impact as a component of their professional and personal goals, GMAC CEO Joy Jones said in a press release.

Their strong desire to build evergreen skills like leadership in an uncertain world, data-driven problem-solving, and effective technology and human capital management persists, even though their preferences for delivery formats and study destinations may shift.

More than half of prospective students, 57%, said they wouldn't consider attending a school that doesn't prioritize equity and inclusion.

Equity and inclusion were important to candidates across the board but varied by region. The report noted that equity and inclusion does not necessarily mean the same thing to respondents from different parts of the world. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts, for example, have been widely politicized and even dismantled at some institutions in the U.S.

While 44% of historically underrepresented prospective students from the U.S. said equity and inclusion were very important to their academic experience, that figure was 33% for non-underrepresented U.S. candidates, according to the report.

A number of U.S. business schools have embraced environmental, social, and governance (ESG) in their curricula in recent years. The Michigan Ross School of Business, for example, announced an ESG concentration for its master of business administration (MBA) students starting in 2024.

I am encouraged by how today’s candidate is aspiring and adapting to meet new global challenges in the forever-evolving business environment and really owning their career trajectory, Jones said.

It is creating enormous opportunities for business schools to satisfy the ever-changing demands of candidates and industry with a wide variety of degree offerings and course flexibility.

The GMAC surveyed 4,105 students from 132 countries as part of its 2024 prospective students survey. The majority were Gen Z respondents, and 42% were female.

The 2024 GMAC Prospective Students Survey included new questions about well-being and efforts by business programs to combat poverty and global hunger and promote economic growth and good jobs. Three-quarters of respondents indicated that well-being efforts are important or very important to their academic experience.

AI Education In Demand

Artificial intelligence (AI) skills are in high demand for business school students.

Candidate demand for AI grew 38% year over year, according to the GMAC survey. The Middle East had the highest percentage of prospective students who said AI was critical to their graduate management curriculum at 58% — a major jump from 35% the year prior.

Of all the regions, the United States had the lowest percentage of prospective students who said AI was essential to their education at 34%. That figure was still much higher compared to 22% the previous year.

Millennials were slightly more interested in AI than Gen Z candidates. Interest in AI from millennials grew from 30% in 2022 to 44% in 2023. Gen Z interest grew from 28% to 38%.

The number of business schools incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into their curricula has increased in recent years.

Purdue University has infused STEM across its revamped Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute has rolled out degrees in high-demand STEM fields like financial technology (fintech). Tulane University announced it would incorporate STEM across its MBA curriculum.

A number of business schools, from small regional institutions to major public and private universities, have also rolled out STEM-certified MBA programs. The number of programs registered as STEM-certified in graduate management education almost doubled between 2017 and 2021, according to the GMAC report.

Global interest in STEM-certified programs has ramped up in recent years, according to the GMAC survey, increasing by 39% in five years.

Demand for hybrid and flexible education has been on the increase as well. Preference globally for hybrid programs increased from 12% in 2019 to 17% in 2023, with hybrid preference the highest in North America and Africa.