As a former MBA student and someone who spent nearly a decade directing the recruiting and admissions efforts of a leading business school, headlines about the impending death of the MBA never come as much surprise to me. However, looking at recent data and thinking about conversations with deans around the country, it is clear that Graduate Management Education (GME) is undergoing a profound shift, and that business schools in particular need to innovate to combat a challenging recruitment environment.
Earlier this year I attended the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) Annual Conference, where GMAC’s president and CEO Sangeet Chowfla shared insights from a survey of prospective students who abandoned their search for an MBA or a specialized master degree.
What they learned from 2.5 million responses was revealing:
So what can we learn from these students and how can it guide our efforts to grow our graduate management programs?
Strategy #1: Understand the power of the opportunity cost mindset
Between the 800,000+ students who are questioning the value of GME, the 750,000+ who switched careers, and the 350,000+ who abandoned their search because they said they saw no value in GME, it’s clear that GME candidates are operating from an opportunity cost mindset.
It’s not shocking that people who are interested in advanced business and management careers are thinking this way—but the data does underscore an important lesson for graduate management programs about the need to communicate value. In my experience, the question many of these students are asking is, “Should I invest time and money into a degree that may not guarantee immediate or substantial ROI?”
In another recent GMAC survey, 61% of business school candidates indicated they were pursuing a new job alongside their business school application, while 43% stated they were considering staying in their current job. These trends are particularly acute when the economy is doing well and opportunities for career advancement are plenty.
So how do you persuade these pragmatic, cost-conscious candidates to invest in your program?
For starters, your recruitment strategy and outreach must lead with value. One way to do this is to emphasize how the skills gained in a GME are relevant in today’s economy. A 2018 LinkedIn survey of 2,000 business leaders found that the three most in-demand soft skills desired from employees were leadership, communication, and collaboration—all competencies that graduate management education students develop.
Another tactic is to publicize as much data about your graduates’ success as possible. Sought-after metrics by prospective students include job placement rates, starting salaries, and industry-specific placement data. Making this information readily available can help on-the-fence candidates better understand the career outcomes they can expect from their investment in a GME.
Strategy #2: Recognize that adult learners are almost always balancing life and school
In the GMAC survey, 425,000 of the students who abandoned their GME search said they had had recent life changes, and 476,000 of the students noted they were uncertain about their future. This data illustrates the need to recognize that personal factors are also at play in students’ enrollment decisions. From my experience working with students, concerns about how enrollment would impact candidates’ personal lives often boil down to two issues: money and time. Whether prospective students are getting married, starting a family, facing health issues, or dealing with other personal matters, the basic question many ask is, “Will I have enough money and time to meet my personal obligations and needs if I decide to enroll?”
Given concerns about cost (and the need to assume debt), it is imperative for business schools to carefully communicate about tuition and scholarships. Make sure that your tuition information is both easy to find on your website and as simple as possible to understand. In addition, proactively communicate scholarship opportunities to your prospective students.
To address concerns about time, be sure to help students envision how a program could fit in with their existing personal obligations. At EAB, we’ve found that digital ads that include messaging about work-life balance and imagery of parents with their children tend to perform well for many graduate business programs.
Strategy #3: Develop a student-centric admissions process
Nearly 400,000 applicants said they abandoned their search because of the admissions process. Given that students have been conditioned by their experiences as consumers to expect straightforward, streamlined interactions with companies, this makes a lot of sense. In a world where students regularly use a few taps on their smartphone to manage their bank accounts, buy plane tickets, order groceries, and more, the standard graduate application processes can start to feel burdensome—even prohibitively so.
In order to better meet students’ expectations and drive enrollments, improving application processes is essential. This can include eliminating any unnecessary requirements, like secondary letters of recommendation, or optimizing your application to make it more mobile-friendly and easier to navigate.
Student-centric changes later in the admissions process can also have a major impact. EAB testing across six Adult Learner Recruitment clients found that applicants who spent less time waiting for an admissions decision tended to yield at higher rates compared to their peers who waited longer. Students who received a decision within 1 week of submitting their application yielded at 77.6%, compared to students who waited three to four weeks and yielded at just 55.5%.
Removing application barriers doesn’t mean sacrificing your admissions standards. It means you should rigorously assess each step of the process with an eye for the increasingly consumer-driven mindset of your students.
The way students evaluate, choose, consume, and apply to graduate business degrees is shifting quickly. While claims of the death of the MBA are surely overblown, to achieve your goals and shape the class you want in this environment, you must have real-time insights into student motivations and intent, and a responsive and agile marketing and recruiting operation to act on the insights in your data.
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