According to GMAC’s annual Application Trends Survey, applications were more likely to grow among flexible graduate management education (GME) programs while more selective programs faced declines.
Based on responses from nearly 900 graduate business school programs worldwide, the 2023 Summary Report explores new trends among first-generation applicants and approaches to artificial intelligence; application volume by program type and delivery methods; and diversity enrollment with a focus on women and U.S. underrepresented candidates.
Read on to find answers to key questions addressed in the report and at a recent webinar What’s Driving Application Growth?
Where are applications growing?
To gauge change in application volume, we look at two measures of growth: change in the absolute total number of applications as well as the relative number of programs reporting growth, stability, or declines in their applications.
Across the industry, the absolute total number of applications dipped five percent, and 50 percent of programs reported declines in applications compared to 45 percent that reported growth.
However, there are some bright spots. More than half of professional MBAs (such as online, hybrid, or flex programs) reported growth. In addition, 51 percent of Master of Finance programs reported growth in applications. Across regions, more than half of U.S. programs reported growth in their applications. In addition, the total number of applications to programs in Canada rose by 16 percent—though this is largely recovering from steep drops in 2022.
Do applicants want flexibility more than prestige?
Flexible programs—such as those being offered online, hybrid, on weekends, or during the evening—were more likely to see application growth than more traditional, full-time, in-person programs. As expectations toward work flexibility solidify following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears similar attitudes are spilling into GME and higher education.
To explore why decreases were more prominent among full-time, in-person programs, we examined programs by Financial Times and U.S. News and World Report rankings as well as reported acceptance rates. We found that lower ranked and unranked programs were more likely to report growth than top ranked programs. In addition, moderately selective programs with acceptance rates between roughly 40 and 65 percent were the most likely to report growth, while the most selective programs were most likely to report declines in applications.
Of course, flexibility and prestige are not mutually exclusive. Still, higher ranked and more selective programs did not see the same growth in their flexible programs. Moreover, candidates are certainly still interested in applying to the most selective programs; however, the average candidate may now be more willing to sacrifice prestige for flexibility than they were before.
How does application growth vary around the globe?
Applications to programs in Europe and Asia and the Pacific Islands had similar trends, with about a six percent decline in total applications and more than half of programs reporting declines.
Total applications to programs in the United States declined by approximately three percent. However, more than half of U.S. programs (52 percent) experienced growth in applications, meaning that dip was experienced by a small share of programs—likely those that are more selective and higher ranked.
While total overall applications to Canadian programs increased, only 38 percent of programs reported growth in applications, indicating the increases were concentrated among a smaller portion of Canadian programs.
For more information about the application volume and composition in each market, view the regional profiles:
How can admissions, recruitment, and marketing professionals build inclusive pipelines?
Comparing the Application Trends Survey data with results from GMAC’s Prospective Students Survey reveals that there are nearly twice as many first-generation candidates interested in GME than those who actually submitted applications. This gap is consistent across degree types, indicating opportunity for business schools to target this population with marketing that helps translate interest into actual applications and enrollment.
Likewise, the median share of women applying to GME programs has hovered around 40 percent over the past decade. Only 39 percent of programs report conducting events or directing marketing specifically to women, suggesting there may be opportunity to expand efforts to achieve gender parity in those applying to graduate business school.
Due to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on race-based admissions, GME programs in the United States are reconsidering their policies to recruit classes that reflect the diversity of the applicant pool. The survey results suggest that these policy shifts will happen amid a renewed interest in GME among candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, with nearly half of programs reporting increases in applications from U.S. underrepresented populations.
In addition to the public materials, survey respondents receive benchmark and interactive reports to compare their programs’ applications to their peers and dig deeper in the dataset. Sign up to participate in future surveys and receive these exclusive benefits.