How has Covid-19 changed business school candidate preferences?

Matt Hazenbush shares insights from a survey of 6,500 global prospective students.

Like many other industries, graduate business schools faced a sudden and extended halt to business as usual amid the pandemic. Course delivery, student and career services, admissions and recruitment – critical functions of business school operations had to be reimagined entirely in order to protect the health of the community. In service of maintaining the value of the student experience, school professionals across functional areas did tremendous work under the guidance of school leadership to develop solutions in very trying circumstances.

If there were ever concerns that the pandemic and its effects would diminish prospective students’ perceptions of the value of a graduate business degree, new findings shared in the GMAC Prospective Students Survey – 2022 Summary Report should help put them to rest. Although cost remains a significant concern, candidates currently considering a graduate business degree continue to see a graduate management education as a way to advance professionally at levels consistent with candidates surveyed prior to the pandemic. Overall, more than 4 in 5 agree with the statement: A graduate business degree helps you stand out at work (82%).

Although cost remains a significant concern, candidates currently considering a graduate business degree continue to see a graduate management education as a way to advance professionally

The question now on the minds of many business school leaders is: How has Covid-19 changed the preferences of prospective students? Comparing candidate survey responses from before the pandemic with the more than 6,500 individuals surveyed in 2021 reveals that while some things remain the same, others are evolving.

2021 survey statsThe full-time MBA is still the most popular option, even among those who want to study in master’s-focused Western Europe

Among global candidates, the full-time MBA is still the most preferred programme type. More than 40% of prospective students in the business school pipeline surveyed in 2021 want to earn an MBA in a full-time format as a part of either a two- (22% of candidates in 2021) or one-year (21%) programme.

Among global candidates who prefer to study in Western Europe, 22% said the full-time one-year MBA is their preferred option – more than Master of Finance (13%) or Master in Management (11%). However, specifically among Western European citizens who want to study in-region, more expressed a preference for the Master in Finance (20%) than the one-year MBA (16%).

Meanwhile, the full-time two-year MBA is still the biggest draw among global candidates who want to study in the United States (31%), but domestic US candidates may be taking a page out of the European playbook and moving toward the one-year format. Among US domestic candidates, preference for the full-time one-year MBA rose from 15 to 19% between 2019 and 2021. This growth was similar across gender and undergraduate majors.

Candidates see higher value in the in-person business school experience compared with online, but at the same time, interest in hybrid formats is on the rise

4 in 5 agreeOverall, most prospective students globally continue to see greater value in the on-campus business school experience compared with online. Most disagree that online degree programmes offer the same value as on-campus programmes (73%). Nearly 4 in 5 disagree that the networking opportunities are equivalent, and 2 in 3 disagree that the career opportunities are the same.

At the same time, preference for hybrid models increased significantly across candidate segments, including those who prefer executive, part-time and flexible MBA programmes (44% preferred hybrid delivery in 2021), as well as those who want to study full-time to earn a business master’s (20%) or MBA (13%).

Interest in tech is growing, especially among some of the candidate segments that schools are most interested in attracting

A key tenet of the GMAC Prospective Students Survey is tracking candidates’ career plans or goals for post-graduate management education (GME). In terms of industries of interest, where we saw a statistically significant shift in the last year is in interest in the technology sector. Globally, the percentage of candidates interested in tech rose slightly, but significantly, from 34 to 37 percent from 2019 to 2021.

But perhaps even more interesting than that alone is what specific segments of candidates are reporting an interest in tech. Tech was the most commonly sought-after industry by non-business undergrad majors (49%) in 2021 and, between 2019 and 2021, interest in tech increased among women (29% to 34%). Schools interested in elevating the representation of these candidate segments in their programmes should take notice.

Among Western European candidates, interest in the tech industry is lower than global levels (32%), coming in behind the consulting (45%), financial services (34%) and investment banking and asset management (33%) industries, all of which maintained a level of interest with Western Europeans relative to before the pandemic.

Western Europe and the United States are still the top international study destinations, but candidates from traditionally mobile regions are increasingly opting to study closer to home

The good news for business schools in Western Europe and the United States is that most candidates who prefer to study internationally still want to study in these locations. Consistent with before the pandemic, 39% of international candidates want to study in each location, respectively.

The data underscores the difference in key drivers for candidate locations. For example, Western Europe attracts the majority of international candidates who prefer to earn a business master’s (53%), while the United States attracts the majority of international candidates who prefer to earn an MBA (50%). International candidates who prefer the United States are more likely to state reputation of the educational system, better preparation for career and student body diversity as reasons for their destination preference, whereas candidates who prefer Western Europe are more likely to cite the attractiveness of location and affordability of education/fees as positive decision-making factors.

global candidates 2019-2021

The bad news is that Western Europe and the United States may be battling it out for an overall smaller pool of internationally mobile candidates, as the survey data suggest that candidates from traditionally mobile markets are now increasingly opting to stay closer to home. Among Central and South Asian candidates, the percentage who prefer to study internationally declined from 89 to 73% between 2019 and 2021. Among East and Southeast Asian candidates, preference to study internationally declined from 92 to 87% between 2020 and 2021.

Test optional policies may hurt candidate perceptions of fairness and transparency in business school admissions – especially among international candidates

When considering the application process, the data indicate that test-optional admissions policies may hurt candidate perceptions of fairness and transparency in business school admissions – especially among international candidates.

56% of candidatesGlobally, most candidates agree that admissions exams improve the fairness and transparency of business school admissions (56%). Most also agree that exams improve schools’ reliability in evaluating applicants (57%) and demonstrate the importance they place on the quality of the students they admit (59%). Among international candidates specifically, about half say a school’s use of admissions exams is an indicator of the quality of the programme and is an important criterion for considering applying to that school. In addition, twice as many international candidates agree rather than disagree that admissions exams are an effective way to determine which students to admit.

Making sense of a dynamic market

So, while various aspects of the candidate pipeline look a lot like they did prior to the pandemic, such as preference for the full-time MBA, others are experiencing shifts of varying degrees, like increased preference for hybrid delivery, interest in the technology industry and shifts in international mobility. These findings may spark conversations among business school leaders and aid in their ideation to continue to evolve their schools’ offerings to meet candidate preferences in our new reality.

specific candidate segments

About the study

This article highlights some of the key findings of the GMAC Prospective Students Survey – 2022 Summary Report, a market intelligence publication of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

GMACFor more than a decade, the GMAC Prospective Students Survey has provided the world’s graduate business schools with critical insights into the decision-making processes of people currently considering applying to a graduate management education (GME) programme. Its questions – covering a diverse range of topics that impact prospective students’ application and enrollment decisions – provide school professionals with timely, relevant and reliable market intelligence to inform how they engage with candidates to build their incoming classes. To access the full report, visit gmac.com/prospectivestudents.

How has Covid19 changed business school candidate preferences?

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