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Economic conditions reduce the volume of graduate applicants

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

While a master’s degree in business administration remains the Holy Grail for many business students, a number of MBA programs have experienced a dip in applications.

A recent survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that of the U.S. programs reporting a change in application volume for full-time MBA programs, 61 percent cited a decline in applications. For full-time two-year programs, 65 percent of programs said applications had declined compared with 2010.

The Pamplin School of Business at Virginia Tech can feel their pain.

“Our enrollment was down fairly sharply this year – 20 percent,” says Stephen Skripak, associate dean for graduate programs and director of the MBA program at the Pamplin School of Business at Virginia Tech, which has a two-year, fulltime program.

He says some prospective MBA candidates seem reluctant to give up a full-time job in a fragile economy and drop out of the work force for two years to advance their educations. “One of our highest profile applicants got cold feet,” Skripak says.

He adds that accessibility to more part-time MBA programs also was a possible factor.

Other institutions with falling MBA applications cited the end of tuition-reimbursement programs at many firms, a development that discouraged some prospective students from applying
At Virginia Tech, MBA applications from international students also dropped off 65 percent since a peak in 2009.

Restrictions on U.S. banks who accepted TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds in hiring international students and increased competition from foreign business schools also contributed to the drop, Skripak says.

A prominent business publication recently forecast a shakeout among mid-tier MBA programs in the U.S. “Every school is trying in its own way to avoid the shakeout,” Skripak says. “We’re all trying to find our niche.”

One way Pamplin’s MBA program is trying to differentiate itself is by partnering with Virginia Tech’s highly regarded College of Engineering to offer qualified students an opportunity to get an MBA along with an engineering degree.

At the University of Virginia, the Curry School of Education and the Darden School of Business recently announced a dual degree program for candidates who want to pursue a Master’s of Education and an MBA. Every MBA program has its own story. At Old Dominion University, which has a part-time MBA programs, applications have been relatively flat.

Nationally, 48 percent of part-time MBA programs who responded to the GMAC survey said their applications were down.

But whether applications are up, down or flat, Larry Filer, director of MBA programs at Old Dominion, says that nearly every school that offers an MBA program seems to taking a hard look at it what it’s doing.

“The reasons for pursuing an MBA are different with this group of students than they were 10 years ago. It’s not as necessary as it was in the past,” Filer says.

According to Filer, MBA program directors he’s talked with are hearing from employersthat while they’re perfectly fine with the quantitative skills of MBA graduates, they have been disappointed with their ability to be leaders.

“It’s not just doing a lot of math that will make them good executives,” Filer says. “Everybody is trying to figure this out, particularly the higher-ranked schools. Their reputations have been staked on turning out these quantitative individuals.”

Sara Neher, assistant dean of MBA Admissions at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, says Darden experienced a drop in applications program in 2010-11 but application volume is up moderately this year.

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