Graduate Business School Applications Down Globally, but Many U.S. Programs Report Growth

While applications to business schools dropped across the globe in 2023, according to a new report, many U.S. programs reported growth.
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Published on November 2, 2023
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  • Applications to graduate business programs fell globally in 2023, according to a new Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) report.
  • Many U.S. programs reported growth despite the global decline.
  • Flexible programs, including online and evening formats, saw more application growth.
  • The number of women applying to graduate business programs continued to stagnate.

Graduate business program applications dropped worldwide in 2023 — but programs with flexible and online formats fared better than traditional ones.

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) found in its annual Application Trends Survey that applications to highly selective graduate business programs dipped — while less selective programs saw an increase.

The survey, which collected responses from 893 programs across 247 business schools worldwide, found an overall dip in applications. Despite that overall decline, however, the GMAC found that online, hybrid, and evening graduate business programs were more likely to report an application increase.

U.S. programs experienced a smaller decline in overall applications than the rest of the world, according to the survey, and more than half of programs in the U.S. reported a growth in applications.

GMAC Research Analysis and Communications Director Andrew Walker told BestColleges that schools say the quality of candidates applying to their programs are the same as in the past despite the decline in applications.

That means that the most qualified applicants are still pursuing graduate programs, Walker said in an interview.

"The conclusion that we're drawing from that is basically there's a small total number of applications across the industry that's declining, it's about 5%, but it's likely not the most qualified or interested candidates that are no longer applying," Walker said. "So I'd say that's a good sign for the industry."

Students Prioritize Flexibility

Online, hybrid, and other flexible programs were more likely to see application growth. The report describes flexibility as "the driving force behind programs with growing applications in 2023."

"The average candidate, so maybe not the person who's still aiming for those most selective schools, but the average candidate may be more willing to sacrifice prestige for flexibility than they've been in the past," Walker said.

U.S. programs also reported as much growth in applications to full-time, in-person programs as in programs with flexible formats, according to the report.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in the number of graduate business programs offering online formats. Online programs tend to be more affordable and allow students to study on their own time. Online master of business administration (MBA) programs, for example, tend to be less expensive than their full-time counterparts.

GMAC CEO Joy Jones noted in a press release that the business school landscape is quickly evolving to meet student demand for flexibility.

"As post-pandemic attitudes toward work continue shifting and preferences for educational offerings continue evolving, the business school community as a whole is quickly adapting," Jones said in the release.

"From degreed programs to new certificates, concentrations, executive education, and micro-credentials, there is a wealth of options appealing to a wide spectrum of candidates in different stages of career and life. It serves as a testament to how business schools rise to the challenge to meet the needs of today's business school aspirants who will undoubtedly benefit from graduate business education."

Applications From Underrepresented Students Surge

Roughly 47% of U.S. programs said they saw year-over-year growth in applications from underrepresented students, according to the survey. That represents a major 18 percentage point increase from a 10-year low in 2022, according to the GMAC release.

First-generation students make up 31% of prospective students for graduate business schools, according to the GMAC, but the number of first-generation students who are interested in pursuing a graduate business degree is larger than the number who actually applied.

First-generation students made up just 13% of all students who applied, according to the GMAC survey.

Walker said first-generation students tend to be more interested in applying for hybrid and online programs, but those programs don’t necessarily increase the number of first-generation students who actually apply.

"There is greater interest among the first-generation students in pursuing those programs, but even still, that hasn't necessarily led to an equal number of applications among those who are interested in applying."

The gap between the number of students who are interested in graduate business school versus those who are interested in applying isn’t the same across all underrepresented groups. The number of women who are interested in programs tends to be almost the same as the number who actually apply, Walker said.

The percentage of women in the applicant pool across the globe has stagnated in recent years, according to the survey. Women only make up the majority of applications in master's in accounting programs, and they make up just under half of applications to master's in management programs.

"A decade of stagnation in applications from women looks similar across regions and persists across degree types," the report reads. "Even among programs in which women were well represented in the applicant pool, applications from women have stagnated or declined."