MBA programs are seeing an influx of applicants as the COVID-19 economic slowdown drives many to learn new skills or rethink their careers.
At Portland State University’s School of Business, the applications for programs starting in the fall of 2021 have been rolling in. The number of applicants for the college’s full-time MBA is up 128% over the same time last year. Applications for the part-time program are up 69%.
It is a trend that is playing out across business schools around the world. After several years of flat enrollment growth, the pandemic-induced economic slowdown means many are taking the opportunity to break from their jobs to upskill or switch their career path.
The increased interest in MBAs is in line with historical trends: A strong economy leads to flatter enrollment rates in graduate business programs as workers are less motivated to leave well-paid jobs. During economic downturns, people are more drawn to higher education because the job market is less enticing.
The Graduate Management Admission Council’s annual Application Trends Survey found that 74% of U.S. full-time graduate business school programs received more applications for 2020 than they did in 2019.
The year 2020 was an exceptionally challenging year because of COVID-19, and the uncertainties that it brought mean that although the number of applicants increased over previous years, interest in MBAs starting in the fall of 2021 is much higher.
Rachel Foxhoven, executive director of graduate business programs at the School of Business, Portland State University, says the number of students enrolled in its full-time MBA in 2020 is on par with the previous year.
Although it had more applicants last year, more people deferred or declined than in previous years because of the disruption to life that COVID-19 has brought, such as the challenges of working and looking after children at home, and the shift to remote learning.
The Graduate Management Admission Council’s annual survey found that the median deferral rate of programs in 2020 was 8% compared with 3% for 2019.
Applications from international students were also down because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. International students usually make up between 17% and 25% of Portland State University’s MBA programs. In 2020 it was 10%. This mirrors a global trend. Deferrals are highest among international students who face barriers to travel because of COVID-19.
The university canceled the admission test for entry to its MBA program for 2021, which may also explain the jump in applicants, says Tichelle Sorensen, academic director. The school waived the entry test because of evidence it creates a barrier toward a diversified applicant pool and leads to racial disparities.
“I interview every applicant, and I have not seen any drop in the quality of applicants,” says Sorensen.
The University of Oregon’s MBA has seen its biggest class size in five to seven years, says Paul Allen, associate director, executive admissions at the university’s Charles H. Lundquist College of Business. The higher enrollment in 2020 was “more than we expected,” says Allen, given the global pandemic.
He chalks up the increased interest in MBAs to the fact that higher education is one of the “few things we can control these days.”
The University of Oregon’s MBA program is aimed at mid- to senior-level executives. The demographics of the class of 2020 have not changed much despite deep shifts in the economy that severely disrupted certain sectors like hospitality and travel while boosting other areas like logistics and technology.
MBAs that focus on attracting people in the early stage of their careers are seeing increased enrollment. Willamette University’s MBA program had its largest class in four years in 2020. Many of its students come directly from undergraduate programs. Michael Hand, dean of the university’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management, attributes the increased numbers to students seeking to become more marketable in a tougher job market.
Interest in classes starting in 2021 is even stronger, says Hand, with the number of applications up 50% over the same time last year.
COVID-19 has presented challenges to teaching the MBA program. Willamette University’s business program is focused on building “close relationships and social interaction,” says Hand. The university tried to strive for that as much possible by holding smaller in-person classes as well as virtual classes.
Hopes are high that 2021 will look more normal than last year as coronavirus vaccines are widely administered. But higher-education programs will likely retain features that were introduced during the pandemic to enable remote learning.
At Portland State University’s business school, Sorensen says the pandemic has provided more opportunities to organize guest speakers to present over Zoom, saving the time and trouble of getting experts to come into the school. “With Zoom I can double down on guest speakers. You can get a lot more people because time is not an issue,” she says.
While many business schools balk at calling their courses hybrid because of the high cost of doing MBAs, the conveniences of remote instruction will undoubtedly remain post-pandemic.
And the influx of students seeking to retool their careers this year is proof the MBA remains as recession-proof as ever.
MBA PROGAMS Ranked by total enrolled (2020 academic year)
1 Oregon State MBA
Institution: Oregon State University
Dean/Director: Jim Coakley (Interim)
Total Enrolled: 337 Full-time Enrolled: 186
Degrees Awarded: 81
2 Willamette University MBA
Institution: Willamette University
Dean/Director: Michael L. Hand
Total Enrolled: 222 Full-time Enrolled: 219
Degrees Awarded: 114
3 Master of Business Administration
Institution: University of Portland
Dean/Director: Gary Malecha
Total Enrolled: 135 Full-time Enrolled: 33
Degrees Awarded: 61
4 The Portland MBA
Institution: Portland State University
Dean/Director: Tichelle Sorensen
Total Enrolled: 133 Full-time Enrolled: 52
Degrees Awarded: 93
5 Oregon Executive MBA
Institution: University of Oregon
Dean/Director: Rachel Todd
Total Enrolled: 99 Full-time Enrolled: 99
Degrees Awarded: 41
6 The Healthcare MBA
Dean/Director: Steve Kinder
Total Enrolled: 96 Full-time Enrolled: 96
Degrees Awarded: 43
7 Hoff School of Business MBA
Institution: Corban University
Dean/Director: Shawn Hussey
Total Enrolled: 55 Full-time Enrolled: 50
Degrees Awarded: 35
8 Eastern Oregon University MBA
Institution: Eastern Oregon University
Dean/Director: Ed Henninger
Total Enrolled: 54 Full-time Enrolled: 30
Degrees Awarded: 44
9 Master of Business Administration
Institution: Pacific University
Dean/Director: John Miller (Interim)
Total Enrolled: 39 Full-time Enrolled: 39
Degrees Awarded: 20
Disclaimer: This list is compiled based on responses to a survey. Institutions are not included if they do not respond to the survey.