Despite a rise in demand for MBAs, not all business schools are enrolling more students

September 29, 2013

The number of applications to full-time MBA programs has begun to rebound following the economic downturn, but that doesn’t mean schools around the Washington region took in more students this year.

Universities play an admissions game each year that requires them to balance the number of applications they receive with the number of desks they have available and their desire to push admissions standards higher by selecting top students.

Results in the Washington area were mixed this year.

Georgetown University, the region’s highest-ranked program, posted a sizable jump in full-time MBA enrollment. American University also saw an uptick. But the University of Maryland and George Washington University trimmed their incoming class sizes.

Business schools are offering a wider variety of graduate-level degrees than ever before, but for many, the full-time MBA still serves as their flagship program.

“The full-time MBA drives the brand of the business school, and that’s why so much attention is paid to the full-time MBA,” said Ken White, associate dean at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith Business School.

Nationally, demand for the diplomas appears to be on the rise.

The Graduate Management Admissions Council last week released its annual Application Trends Survey, a closely watched report that tracks global demand for business education at the graduate level based on applications and admissions data.

This year’s report found that 52 percent of two-year, full-time MBA programs in the United States saw an increase in applications, compared with 32 percent in last year’s survey. Meanwhile, 46 percent of programs saw a decline in applications, compared with 62 percent last year.

Fifty-five percent of one-year, full-time programs in the United States reported an increase in applications, compared with 54 percent last year. Forty-three percent of programs reported a decline, however, as opposed to 32 percent last year.

The change in demmand indicates that the appetite for full-time MBA education is rebounding after the economic downturn made some prospective students hesitant to trade steady employment for hefty tuition bills.

The University of Maryland saw its incoming class fall from 113 last year to 104 this year. White said the school deliberately lowered its target number of students in part to maintain admissions standards — incoming students had an average 3.3 grade-point average and 655 score on the Graduate Management Admissions Test, which is consistent with prior years.

Like many business schools, Maryland has added part-time and online MBA options, as well as specialized master's degrees in areas such as finance and marketing analytics. Enrollment in those programs helps offset dips in MBA enrollment, White said.

“Obviously you want to maintain the quality, that drives so much. Sometimes you have to adjust for that,” White said. “At the same time, having that wide portfolio, we never have to give in because if we know [when] one program is struggling, another program can bring it up.”

George Washington University also slashed the size of its incoming MBA program, enrolling 95 students, compared with 113 last year. Christopher Storer, executive director of MBA admissions, said the decision was made to improve the quality of the class.

The average GMAT score for incoming students jumped from 635 in 2012 to 644 this year. Additionally, the program stopped enrolling freshly minted undergraduates and installed a minimum two-year work requirement to increase the amount of experience among students.

“It will be slow in terms of increasing [enrollment] because I want the quantitative measures to go up further faster,” Storer said, referring primarily to GMAT scores.

Georgetown University managed to pull off a tricky feat — increasing enrollment while also raising admissions standards. The school’s enrollment grew by 20 students over last year, to 270. Its average GMAT score climbed five points to 688.

“We have always known and thought about the fact that we have literally chairs in the classroom to support a higher enrollment,” said Elaine Romanelli, senior associate dean. “We did not want to do that until we saw very clearly we could do that without compromising quality.”

Romanelli said the school made a much more concerted effort to keep admitted students from accepting offers at other similarly competitive programs.

American University, one of the region’s smallest full-time MBA programs, saw its number of students shift from 30 to 34. Its average GMAT score soared a whopping 40 points over last year to 590.

Howard University and George Mason University did not provide data for this story.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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